The new green belt atlas shows quite how much space England has left for housing

This is, for some reason, the most recent photo that comes up when you search Getty for “green belt”, and we're bored with pictures of fields, so. Image: Getty.

One of the reasons it’s so difficult to solve the housing crisis is that Britain is, literally, full. Honestly: completely, utterly jam-packed. There just isn’t anywhere left here to put a single extra house.

After all, as anyone who has ever looked out of the window of a plane will know, there is literally not a single square inch of land left in the south of England that hasn’t been concreted over, given its own branch of Tesco Metro, and probably then handed to some immigrants  on the orders of Brussels. Did you know that European legislation means it is now – and I am not making this up – literally illegal to keep a tree? True story. I blame the developers. Them and the council bureaucrats. And the expenses cheats. And Tony Blair. And Jeremy Corbyn, and lazy millennials, and Syrian refugees, and ASLEF, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Muslim Council of Great Britain, and Caitlin Moran, and-

Anyway, back in reality, this is bollocks, obviously. While there are many things that make it difficult for our dear leaders to solve the housing crisis – politics, economics, social factors – physics isn’t one of them. There is loads of spare land where we could put more homes, it’s simply that we’ve chosen not to.

And the reason why I know this is that our old mate from the University of Sheffield, Alasdair Rae, has updated his green belt atlas.

The new version maps the green belt across the 186 English local authorities which contain any. (There are only 326 of them, so that’s more than half the total.) It shows, for example, that there are three local authorities in which more than 90 per cent of land is green belt: 

Those three all have something in common: the M25. To be more specific, all three are large blocks of land bordering Greater London, which contain a couple of commuter towns and a whole lot of nothing.

A map of local authorities around London, with the three offenders marked in green. Image: ONS; vandalism: CityMetric’s own.

A lot of that nothing is quite pretty – the ancient woodland, the North Downs and so forth. Nobody in their right mind would shrug their shoulders and say “concrete the lot”.

But I don’t believe for a moment that there is not a patch of land in any of them that wouldn’t be better employed as housing. Not least since Epping Forest contains seven tube stations. And do the residents of Sevenoaks and neighbouring Tonbridge & Malling (71 per cent green belt) really need all five of these golf courses within a few minutes drive of each other?

Click to expand, and find all five golf courses! Image: Google.

Neighbouring Brentwood meanwhile is getting two stops on Crossrail. In exchange, one might imagine, the local council would have been asked to contribute to solving London’s housing crisis. One would be wrong: its MP Erick Pickles was, when communities secretary, very concerned about the way development would encroach on precious chemically-coated fields.

Others of Rae’s maps show that two London boroughs are more than 50 per cent green belt:

 

That Cambridge is pretty tightly bounded by its existing green belt, si will struggle to grow without cooperating with its neighbour:

And that York has a lot of room to grow, if only anybody would let it:

There are a lot more maps – 17 more, if you want to be specific – on Alasdair’s website here. He’s also published a spreadsheet, showing his workings.

Anyway, long story short: England is not full. Lots of this green and pleasant land remains both green and pleasant. That’s worth defending. But surely we could have an honest conversation about how we do that without dooming an entire generation to over-priced and insecure housing forevermore.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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All green belt maps courtesy of Alsadair Rae.

 
 
 
 

Worried Guildford will be destroyed by Chinese trains? Then you might not be very nice

A South West Train at Waterloo. Image: Getty.

Despite the collapse of everything else that more-or-less worked in 2008 Britain, before the Hunger Games years began, some things remain constant. One of the things that’s near-mathematical in its constancy is that, when a new train contract is let, people on both sides of the political spectrum will say extremely stupid things for perceived partisan advantage.

This week saw the award of the contract to run trains to the south west of London, and unsurprisingly, the saying stupid things lobby was out in force. Oddly – perhaps a Corbyn-Brexit trend – the saying of egregiously stupid racist lies, rather than moderately stupid things, was most pronounced on the left.

As we’ve done to death here: rail in Great Britain is publicly run. The rail infrastructure is 100 per cent publicly owned, and train operators operate on government contracts, apart from a few weird anomalies. Some physical trains are owned by private investors, but to claim rail isn’t publicly run would be like claiming the NHS was the same as American healthcare because some hospital buildings are maintained by construction firms.

Every seven years or so, companies bid for the right to pay the UK government to operate trains in a particular area. This is the standard procedure: for railways that are lossmaking but community-important, or where they are within a major city and have no important external connections, or where there’s a major infrastructure project going on that’ll ruin everything, special measures take place.

The South Western England franchise is not one of these. It’s a profitable set of train routes which doesn’t quite live up to its name. Although it inherited a few Devon and Dorset routes from the old days, its day job involves transporting hundreds of thousands of Reginald Perrins and Mark Corrigans from London’s outer suburbs and Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire’s satellite towns to the grinding misery of desk jobs that pay a great deal of money.

(If your office is in the actual City of London, a fair trek from the railway’s Waterloo terminus, then you get the extra fun of an extra daily trip on the silliest and smelliest Tube line, and you get even more money still.)

Anyway. The South Western concession went up for auction, and Scottish bus and train operator First Group won out over Scottish bus and train operator Stagecoach, the latter of which had run the franchise for the preceding 20 years. (Yes, I know 20 isn’t a multiple of 7. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can and you wouldn’t enjoy it.)

First will manage the introduction of a bunch of new trains, which will be paid for by other people, and will pay the government £2.2bn in premiums for being allowed to run the service.

One might expect the reaction to this to be quite muted, because it’s quite a boring story. “The government does quite a good deal under which there’ll be more trains, it’ll be paid lots of money, and this will ultimately be paid back by well-paid people paying more train fares.” But these are not normal times.


First Group has decided for the purposes of this franchise to team up with MTR, which operates Hong Kong’s extremely good metro railway. MTR has a 30 per cent share in the combined business, and will presumably help advise First Group about how to run good metro railways, in exchange for taking a cut of the profits (which, for UK train franchises, tend to be about 3 per cent of total revenue).

The RMT, famous for being the least sensible or survival-oriented union in the UK since the National Union of Mineworkers, has taken exception to a Hong Kong company being involved in the railways, since in their Brexity, curly sandwich-eating eyes, only decent honest British Rail has ever delivered good railways anywhere in the world.

“A foreign state operator, in this case the Chinese state, is set to make a killing at the British taxpayers’ expense,” the RMT’s General Secretary Mick Cash said in a press release.

This is not true. Partly that's because a 30 per cent share of those 3 per cent profits is less than 1 per cent of total revenues, so hardly making a killing. Mostly, though, it’s because it’s misleading to call MTR “state-owned”. While it’s majority owned by the Hong Kong government (not the same body as the central Chinese state), it’s also partly listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. More to the point, this a really odd way of describing a transport authority controlled by a devolved body. I wouldn’t call the Glasgow subway “UK-state owned” either.

So this fuss is intensely, ridiculously stupid.

There’s an argument – it’s a bad argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be properly privatised without government subsidy.

There’s an argument – it’s a slightly less stupid argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be returned to the public sector so we can enjoy the glory days of British Rail again.

The glory days of British Rail, illustrated in passenger numbers. Image: AbsolutelyPureMilk/Wikipedia.

But to claim that the problem is neither of these things, but rather that the companies who are operating trains on the publicly run network are partially foreign owned, makes you sound like a blithering xenophobe.

In fact, if you think it’s reasonable for a Scottish company to run trains but not for a Hong Kong company to run them, then that's me being pretty bloody polite all things considered.

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