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.

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Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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