Can you spot the green belt on this map of housing supply increase?

How housing supply has changed in south east England since 2001. Image: Neal Hudson.

Okay everyone, who’s up for an invigorating game of “pin the green belt on the net change in housing supply map”?

The map above shows the change in the number of homes in every council in the south east of England between 2001 (when we didn’t have a housing crisis) and 2016 (when we emphatically did). It’s the work of Neal Hudson, an independent housing analyst, who got the data from this government dataset (table 125, if you’re interested).

Perhaps the biggest trend that jumps out on you is that there’s a ring of councils around London that have, let’s say, not done a great job of increasing their housing stock.

Further from London, the colours get darker as the numbers go up. A lot of inner London boroughs have done better, too: Tower Hamlets has managed more than 24 per cent; Islington, Hackney, Newham, Westminster and Southwark have all done over 18 per cent. (That tiny sliver of beige in west London, incidentally, is Kensington & Chelsea, the site of the Grenfell fire, which has barely built anything.)

Between those two, though, there are several dozen light yellow or beige boroughs, in outer London or in the commuter belt beyond it, representing only small increases in housing numbers.

Now what does that pattern remind me of?

The Green Belt. Image: Lower Thames Crossing Association.

Communities secretary Sajid Javid is soon expected to reveal plans which will force councils to increase their house building targets. That ring, Hudson argued, is very likely to be in his sights:

Is this enough new homes? Between 2001 and 2016, the UK’s population increased by around 12 per cent: at first glance, it looks like at least half of the councils on this map grew their housing stock by more than that (the three darker shades), so maybe things aren’t too bad.

And yet, that 12 per cent probably understates the population growth at this end of the country: as we’ve noted before, England’s fastest growing cities are all in the economically prosperous south.


What’s more, with a few exceptions in inner London, it tends to be the councils further from London that have done most to increase their housing stock. That’s a problem, for two reasons. One is that these councils had smaller populations to start with. A 20 per cent increase on a small number may be a lot less homes than an 8 per cent increase on a big one.

The other is that many of these new residents are likely to work in the capital, meaning long commutes, big carbon footprints and so on. The green belt is protecting the inner ring of commuter towns from sprawl, while loading it all onto places further out.

Oh yes – and consider that housing costs in the south have ballooned, of course. That suggests we’re not building enough homes, too.

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

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Treating towns as bastions of Brexit ignores the reasons for the referendum result – and how to address them

Newcastle: not all cities are booming. Image: Getty.

The EU Referendum result has often been characterised as a revolt of Britain’s “left-behind” towns and rural areas against the “metropolitan elite”. But this view diverts attention from the underlying issues which drove the Brexit vote – and ironically has diverted policy attention away from addressing them too.

It’s true that a number of big urban authorities, led by London, voted to stay. And overall people living in cities were less likely to vote leave than towns. Setting aside Scottish cities and towns, which both voted very strongly for remain, Leave polled 51 per cent of the vote in English and Welsh cities, compared to 56 per cent in local authorities that include towns. (Consistent data isn’t available below local authority level.)

Yet there is a lot of variation underlying this average across towns. In Boston, 75 per cent voted Leave, and in Hartlepool and Grimsby it was 70 per cent. But at the other end of the scale, there were a number of towns that voted to stay. For example, Leave polled at 49 per cent in Horsham and Harrogate, and 46 per cent in Windsor and Hitchin. In places such as Winchester, Leamington Spa and Bath, the Leave voted amounted to less than 42 per cent of the vote.

What drives this variation across towns? Data from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Talk of the Town shows economic outcomes were the biggest factor – with towns that voted Remain also having stronger economies.

For a start, pro-Remain towns generally have smaller shares of people who were either unemployed or claiming long-term benefit. (This is based on 2011 data, the latest available.)

Towns which voted Remain also had a higher share of jobs in high-skilled exporting businesses – an indication of how successful they have been at attracting and retaining high-paid job opportunities.

And both measures will have been influenced by the skills of the residents in each town: the higher the share of residents with a degree, the stronger the Remain vote.

So the Brexit vote was reflective of the varying economic outcomes for people in different parts of the country. Places which have responded well to changes in the national economy voted to Remain in the EU, and those that have been ‘left behind’ – be they towns or cities – were more likely to have voted to Leave.

This sends a clear message to politicians about the need to improve the economic outcomes of the people that live in these towns and cities. But the irony is that the fallout from the Brexit has left no room for domestic policy, and little progress has been made on addressing the problem that, in part, is likely to have been responsible for the referendum outcome in the first place.

Indeed, politicians of all stripes have seemed more concerned about jostling for position within their parties, than setting out ideas for domestic policy agenda. Most worryingly, progress on devolution – a crucial way of giving areas a greater political voice – has stalled.


There was talk earlier this year of Theresa May relaunching her premiership next summer focusing on domestic policy. One of her biggest concerns should be that so many cities perform below the national average on a range of measures, and so do not make the contribution that they should to the national economy.

But addressing this problem wouldn’t ignore towns – quite the opposite. What Talk of the Town shows is that the underperformance of a number of cities is bad not just for their residents or the national economy, but also for the residents in surrounding towns too. A poorly performing neighbouring city limits both the job opportunities open to its residents and impacts on nearby towns’ ability to attract-in business investment and create higher paid jobs.

This isn’t the only factor – as the last chart above suggests, addressing poor skills should be central to any serious domestic policy agenda. But place has an influence on economic outcomes for people too, and policy needs recognise that different places play different roles. It also needs to reflect the importance of the relationships between places to improve the access that people across the country have to job opportunities and higher wages.

The Brexit vote didn’t result from a split between cities and towns. And if we are to address the reasons for it, we need to better understand the relationship between them, rather than seeing them as opposing entities.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Read the Centre’s Talk of the Town report to find out more about the relationship between cities and towns, and what this means for policy.