10 things which prove that London's green belt is a terrible idea

Look at all that lovely intensively farmed land. Image: London First/Quod/SERC.

When the idea of a permanent ring of green space surrounding London was first floated in the years before WW2, the intention was that it would improve the lives of the city's inhabitants.

The Green Belt would be a narrow band, perhaps no more than a mile wide; it wouldn’t necessarily even be continuous. But it'd be publicly owned, and publicly accessible, and would thus provide pleasant and health-giving parkland, conveniently located for every Londoner.

What it wouldn't be was a thick slab of privately owned farmland miles from anywhere, whose main impact on Londoners would be to push up house prices.

That, though, is the green belt we've ended up with. So today the pressure group London First and regeneration consultancy Quod have published a report (yes, another one) calling on the authorities to have a rethink. London's population is growing fast, but its housing stock isn’t, and one big reason is we don't have enough land to build on.

To improve the lot of Londoners today, and to ensure high housing costs don't start having a negative impact on the city's businesses, the report argues, it's time to think again about whether all that land is worth protecting.

The report is full of fascinating maps and stats on what the green belt is really like. Here are our favourites.

1) London is more than two-thirds green

More than a fifth (22 per cent) of land within the Greater London boundary is green belt. That figure is a bit misleading, though, because when you include parks, and gardens, and so forth, actually nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) of London is “green”; only 28 per cent of all land is actually built on. The remainder (7.5 per cent) is mysteriously unclassified.

2) Nearly half of London’s boroughs include more green belt than housing

Of the 33 local authorities within London, 14 of them have more land given over to green belt than housing. In fact, just four of London's local authorities are more than half built up:

3) The green belt doesn’t include those parks you actually visit

The green belt swallows large chunks of outer London. Perversely, though, it doesn't include areas of parkland they're most likely to use, such as Hampstead Heath, Richmond Park and the Lower Lea Valley (labels ours):

Only 13 per cent of London's green belt is actually accessible to the public:

4) Or those bits that are good for biodiversity:

Another 13 per cent is “environmentally protected”: nature reserves, ancient woodland and so on.

5) The green belt is actually mostly farms

Most than half of the green belt (59 per cent) is actually given over to agriculture. 

Do the sums, and you'll find that means that 13 per cent all land in the capital is covered in farms. Which, let's be honest, aren't much use to the average Londoner.

6) Except for the bits which are golf courses

Another 7.1 per cent is golf courses. That’s more than twice the size of the borough of Kensington & Chelsea, which has a similar population to Cambridge (just over 160,000). That's a lot of space given over to golfers in the middle of a housing crisis. 

7) Around 2 per cent of the green belt itself is built up

That’s not because of creeping ribbon development, but because when the belt was first created it swallowed pre-existing roads, houses and even whole villages.

8) London is building more houses than it has for a while

London's house building rates have actually picked up in recent years...

9) But nothing like enough

...but it's been missing the targets by more than ever. The Greater London Authority thinks the city needs to build anything between 49,000 and 62.000 new homes a year until 2036. Suffice it to say that it isn't anything close to that.

10) High house prices don't just hurt renters – they hurt the economy

A narrow plurality of Londoners say they would consider leaving the city if housing costs keep rising – and a significant majority of business leaders think it's a risk to the economy.

So, basically, if you're a farmer, a golfer, or someone who owns a house in the green belt, you should fight tooth and claw to protect it.

If you’re not any of those things, though, it might be time to think again.

All images taken from: "The Green Belt: A Place for Londoners?", published today by London First, Quod and the Social Economics Research Centre.


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.