Relaxing green belt laws might work for London – but what about the rest of the UK?

Look at the poor innocent greenery. Do you really want to build on this? Image: Hidden London.

The economics of supply and demand is a fickle friend to urban planners everywhere.

Say you work in a city with traffic jams, and the council decides to increase road capacity. In the short run, productivity improves, as getting about the city becomes easier. But in the long run, the demand for roads increases as travelling by car becomes a more viable option for an increased number of commuters.

Previously, these commuters might have taken public transport, or chosen not to travel. However, now that road capacity is greater, they are compelled to drive.

This results in a return to the status quo of traffic jams, just on bigger roads. This phenomenon is ubiquitous in American cities such as Los Angeles, where public transport plays second fiddle to private.

The same is true for housing. When demand for housing is high, but supply is low, common sense would dictate that housing supply ought to be increased in the areas where demand is greatest. However, in the long run, much like on an American highway, housing demand will increase once more – because the area where demand is greatest is perceived as more affordable than before.

Brits who might otherwise resign themselves to a semi in Luton might jump at the chance to own property in London if it was presented as being affordable. People change their habits in response to economic signals.

This is what economists call “animal spirits”. Consumers are more confident that they can buy that house, or drive that car, even when the prices have hardly changed, simply because an announced change in supply triggers changes in consumer behaviour.

In fact, we British ought to know this. After the Second World War, the United Kingdom experienced an unprecedented increase in house building.

Metro-Land, part of the vast surge of housebuilding in the 20th century. Image: Cyril A Wilkinson.

Annoyingly, this didn’t lead to any long-term mitigation of the absurd house prices that we face today. The demand for housing in London and the South East is so great that, even after paving over most of Middlesex, we still couldn’t make London affordable in the long run.

And yet, here we are, again discussing paving something over. This time, the mildly inaccurately titled green belt is in the iron sights of house hunters.

Fair enough ­– demand in London is reaching a fever pitch, the supply of housing has been out of step for decades, and the Tories are quite rightly afraid that young people’s inability to get on the property ladder is haemorrhaging their poll ratings among the under-40s.

This seems like a reasonable idea. Parts of the green belt are hardly that green, we don’t need to use up that much of it, and large swathes of green belt are currently located within reach of a Tube station.

Yet with that admission, the problem becomes clear: green belts are not created equal. “Loosening the green belt” is so often just a turn of phrase for removing the Metropolitan Green Belt (the one that surrounds London), because it is under the greatest duress.

Although other green belts were considered important at the time of their implementation, they do not command the same gravitas and controversy afforded by London’s own.

However, a policy to loosen London’s belt alone could be construed as unfair and partisan. Therefore, such a policy would probably invoke green belts across the United Kingdom. How would different green belts be affected?

Railway line extensions into Middlesex led to huge levels of home-building. Image: Metropolitan Railway.

The Metropolitan Green Belt would clearly experience a high level of development as soon as possible, as relatively cheap sites became available in boroughs such as Barnet and Bromley.

This would result in increased economic activity in these areas, due to greater population density. At this point, animal spirits come into play. A greater population density in and around London would cement the South East’s position as the economic centre of the United Kingdom.

Therefore, the demand for housing in the South East would once again increase over time. This means that any serious reduction in prices promised by a loosening of the green belt would likely be less than expected.

Comparatively, a loosening of the green belt in other parts of the United Kingdom, while potentially valuable, would hardly touch the levels of population growth and boosted economic activity experienced around the capital. It could be argued that initiatives such as HS2 and the long-term development of KIBs (Knowledge Intensive Business Services) could improve the situation across the United Kingdom, but these initiatives are only designed for the Birmingham and Manchester-type cities of today – rather than the grander cities that a loosening of the green belt presupposes.


So: loosening the green belt is an inherently London-centric proposal. Just because demand is greatest in the capital, that does not mean that freeing up housing supply is the best blanket policy for solving structural housing issues across the entire country, especially when we admit that solving said structural issues is rather difficult.

Workers have been migrating across the North-South divide for centuries, moving to where they believe the best employment opportunities reside, wilfully abandoning their homes in the belief that the grass is greener in the South.

Opening up the green belt for development now would encourage that mentality, while depriving northern cities of a chance to develop themselves into true regional powerhouses where people want to stay and work. That chance should surely come first.

If we want to increase opportunities for growth in London, we need to make sure that the same opportunities exist across the United Kingdom. Otherwise, we risk perpetuating centuries-old geographical inequalities into the future, simply by opening up the green belt. Those arent the values that ‘London Is Open’ stands for.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.