Sadiq Khan’s housing strategy is good. But London still needs to build on its green belt

The start of the green belt in Upminster, on the London/Essex borders. Image: Google.

A few weeks ago, the mayor of London Sadiq Khan published his draft housing strategy to the Greater London Authority.

The headline aims are impressive: in addition to the more than £3bn to build 90,000 affordable homes in London by 2021 announced back in November 2016, Khan wants to raise a further £250m from land value capture to fund new housing starts, and is calling for the Government to devolve London’s £4.3bn stamp duty revenue to the city.

These are all good objectives, and Khan is right to push for control over stamp duty, something we at the Centre for Cities called for in our 2015 report Beyond Business Rates. Unfortunately, however, the mayor has also continued one of the less helpful policies of his predecessors by ruling out the reform that could most immediately relieve London’s housing crisis – building on the capital’s green belt.

The reality is that London is not building enough new homes. The housing strategy notes that while London should be building at least 50,000 homes a year to keep up with demand until 2035, it is building less than 20,000 a year. As the second least affordable city in the country, London is building fewer homes per person than Barnsley, the second most affordable city in Britain.

This shortage in housing squeezes living standards and fuels poverty in London. As the strategy points out, a third of private renters are spending more than half of their income on rent, while one in fifty Londoners are now homeless. Working across the public, private, and non-profit sectors to improve the housing market, such as through supporting SME builders and improving the skills base, as well as innovative methods such as building 10,000 homes on TfL land, are all needed to stabilise housing costs in the medium term.

But despite the mayor’s ambition and the positive proposals in his plan, these reforms do not go far enough in tackling the emergency in London’s housing market. Although the mayor wants to prioritise development on brownfield land, there is too little to meet London’s housing needs. If London met all of its annual need for housing on brownfield land, all of the land would be used up in less than eight years.

Even this is an overestimate, as three decades of a “brownfield-first” approach to housing has already creamed off all but the least suitable sites for new homes. Those brownfield locations left in London are unusually expensive, complex, or undesirable to develop and are therefore less viable for affordable housing, if they are viable at all.

The short supply of land in London could be solved if we were prepared to build on green belt land with little environmental value close to existing infrastructure. Our report Building Homes Where We Need Them shows that if 60 per cent of green belt land within 2km of a train station in Greater London was developed into suburban housing, London could build an additional 432,000 homes.


Rolling this out to the rest of the capital’s green belt could unlock a further 3m new homes. Across the ten least affordable cities in Britain including Oxford, London and Bristol, building on less than 5 per cent of green belt land in the ten least affordable UK cities would supply 1.4m homes close to train stations. These new homes would be cheaper to develop and more locked into existing infrastructure than those on London’s remaining poor-quality brownfield sites, making it possible to supply more affordable housing.

However, at the moment, almost no housing is built on London’s green belt. From 2014 to 2017, local authorities released 170 hectares of London’s green belt for development – just 0.03 per cent of the capital’s green belt land, which at 514,030 hectares covers an area three times the size of London.

The mayor’s decision to rule out building on the green belt (as his predecessors did) not only blocks hundreds of thousands of potential new homes: it imposes a hidden cost, by making the housing that is being built on brownfield land more scarce and therefore less affordable for Londoners. In other words, London’s high housing costs subsidise the lack of new homes on green belt land.

London’s housing crisis can be traced back to a range of factors, and many of the mayor’s proposals will help tackle them. But by ruling out new homes on the green belt, the mayor is leaving the lowest-hanging and biggest fruit unpicked, and making housing less affordable for Londoners. To solve London’s housing crisis, green belt land will have to be released – the only question is when.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared. 

 
 
 
 

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.