Here's why solving London's housing crisis will mean rethinking the green belt

London from above. Image: Getty.

BUILD ON GREEN BELT TO SOLVE CRISIS

So screams the front page of yesterday's Evening Standard. The crisis in question, predictably, is the one about housing, or more specifically the lack of it.

The story concerns a report commissioned by housing charity Shelter and written by consultancy Quod; and the Standard's headline is accurate, as far as it goes. But it doesn't go very far, and the report's reasoning is a bit more complicated than the paper implies. (CityMetric, of course, would never sex up a headline in an attempt to grab readers’ attention.)

So, for your delectation, here's how our take on what the report says.

Choices, choices

The report, written by Quod director and occasional CityMetric map warbler Barney Stringer, starts out by noting the expert consensus that London needs to build 50,000 homes a year to meet demand for housing. At the moment, it’s consistently somewhere under half that. That's probably not the only reason why renting a small flat in zone 2 for a year now requires you to sell the next three generations of your family into slavery, but it's be naive to imagine it isn't a factor.

So, we need to build more, which, since houses can't hang in the air like balloons, means finding more places to build them. The report lays out a number of options:

• Tall buildings

• Greenbelt

• Garden Cities

• Estate redevelopment

• Adding density to the suburbs

• Transport corridors

• High density town centres

As well as the mysterious

• Other options?

Thanks to the laws of physics, though, we really only have three choices: build up, build out, or build in derelict areas that are effectively empty at the moment ("brownfield" land). For obvious reasons everyone wants to start with the latter.

There's just one tiny problem:

There isn't enough brownfield

Brownfield doesn't actually mean "derelict", but rather "land that has previously been developed". You know your home, where you live? That's brownfield. If you have a garden, that was brownfield, too, until recently (they've now changed the rules).

In fact, unsurprisingly, the vast majority of land in London is used for something:

A map, courtesy of Quod. Click to expand.

It's really only the pink areas on this map that are open to redevelopment:

Click to expand.

And, to quote Quod’s report:

About half of non-housing brownfield land that is currently in employment uses – the half that is most suitable for redevelopment – is already earmarked for change in the Mayor’s Opportunity Areas. Tens of thousands of homes are being built in places such as Kings Cross, Stratford and Nine Elms.

To sum up, building more on brownfield means demolishing stuff that's already there and putting it somewhere else. Or it means spending money on decontaminating ex-industrial land, or on "land assembly" (buying up enough small patches until you’ve got one big enough to be worth redeveloping). It's rarely an easy solution, and we’re already doing the bits that are relatively easy anyway.

As a result, the private sector has never managed to build more than 18,000 homes a year on London's brownfield land. Which isn't close to being enough. So, if we’re going to fix this mess, we need to look at other options

Build up

Actually, that phrase is a bit of an over-simplification for a range of options that involve "fitting more stuff into the city as it stands".

Building up could mean tower blocks. London isn't the low-rise city of the imagination...

Click to expand.

...and as many as 28,000 London homes are on the 10th floor or higher.

But a lot of people don't much fancy living in tower blocks. And pressure groups like More Light More Power and the Skyline Campaign show there's significant public opposition to them, too. So it's unlikely that solving London's housing crisis will mean turning the whole place into Manhattan.

There are other ways of squeezing more people into existing housing areas. We could redevelop housing estates:

Click to expand.

That's good, because the public sector already owns the land and it tends to have good transport links. But to quote Quod’s report, the problem here is...

...estate redevelopment is not a quick or easy solution. Good estate renewal takes many years (decades even) and a great deal of co-operation and effort. It also requires significant investment

The government has promised £140m to redevelop 100 estates nation wide. Quite apart from the difficulty of turfing people out of their homes so you can rebuild them, that does not count as "significant investment".

Or perhaps we could densify the suburbs:

Click to expand.

This sounds pretty positive: 20 per cent of London's population occupies 40 per cent of its residential land. Increase the number of people living in those areas by 10 per cent, and you could get 75,000 homes.

The problem here is that those suburbs are largely privately owned, in the form of nice little semi-detached houses. The government has limited power to compel residents to flog their land to developers, and even if most of a street were up for it, there's no guarantee everyone would be. What's more, the lowest density areas tend to be in the outer boroughs...

Click to expand.

...which are least likely to favour new homes, and also quite likely to be swing voters. Great.

So that leaves...

Building out

London could meet its housing need through new garden cities. But that means imposing new buildings on communities a long way from anywhere the mayor actually has power over, in towns and rural areas that probably have housing crises of their own to contend with. And it means forcing people to make longer commutes, damaging their quality of life and the environment all at the same time.

Luckily, there is an alternative. More than a fifth of Greater London (22 per cent) is classified as green belt. Fourteen London boroughs have more green belt than residential land. And while most of it is pretty inaccessible at the moment...

The accessibility of London's green belt. Higher numbers are better. Click to expand.

...the value of that land goes through the roof the minute planning permission is granted. If local authorities could capture that uplift, they could pump the money back into vital transport infrastructure.

This is why the topline of the report is that building on green belt has to be part of the mix. It's where the Standard got their headline from. Here’s the key passage:

Before the metropolitan Green Belt was established London saw unprecedented rates of development. Almost one in five of London’s current homes were built in a single ten-year period just before the Second World War. A much smaller and more controlled release of appropriate bits of Green Belt could be an effective way to deliver substantial numbers of new homes.

(...)

There is a legitimate debate about whether London’s Green Belt could be better managed, ensuring the protection of beauty and public access as well as providing new homes. The new Mayor will need to take a pragmatic rather that absolutist view.

But that, at the moment, is where it all falls down. All four of the major party candidates (Labour's Sadiq Khan, the Tories' Zac Goldsmith, the Lib Dem Caroline Pidgeon and the Green Sian Berry) have ruled out even touching the green belt. Given the public support for keeping it in tact, that isn't an irrational thing to do.


Nonetheless, a commitment to protecting London's green belt, come what may, is also a commitment to not solving London's housing crisis. Goldsmith and Khan may talk about protecting the green belt while campaigning. But will the next mayor be brave enough to break their promise and do the right thing in office?

Because we’re suckers for this stuff, we'll be publishing more on this report, written by Quod's Barney Stringer himself, later this week.

Why not like us on Facebook?

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

****

Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

****
Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

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

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.