The new green belt atlas shows quite how much space England has left for housing

This is, for some reason, the most recent photo that comes up when you search Getty for “green belt”, and we're bored with pictures of fields, so. Image: Getty.

One of the reasons it’s so difficult to solve the housing crisis is that Britain is, literally, full. Honestly: completely, utterly jam-packed. There just isn’t anywhere left here to put a single extra house.

After all, as anyone who has ever looked out of the window of a plane will know, there is literally not a single square inch of land left in the south of England that hasn’t been concreted over, given its own branch of Tesco Metro, and probably then handed to some immigrants  on the orders of Brussels. Did you know that European legislation means it is now – and I am not making this up – literally illegal to keep a tree? True story. I blame the developers. Them and the council bureaucrats. And the expenses cheats. And Tony Blair. And Jeremy Corbyn, and lazy millennials, and Syrian refugees, and ASLEF, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Muslim Council of Great Britain, and Caitlin Moran, and-

Anyway, back in reality, this is bollocks, obviously. While there are many things that make it difficult for our dear leaders to solve the housing crisis – politics, economics, social factors – physics isn’t one of them. There is loads of spare land where we could put more homes, it’s simply that we’ve chosen not to.

And the reason why I know this is that our old mate from the University of Sheffield, Alasdair Rae, has updated his green belt atlas.

The new version maps the green belt across the 186 English local authorities which contain any. (There are only 326 of them, so that’s more than half the total.) It shows, for example, that there are three local authorities in which more than 90 per cent of land is green belt: 

Those three all have something in common: the M25. To be more specific, all three are large blocks of land bordering Greater London, which contain a couple of commuter towns and a whole lot of nothing.

A map of local authorities around London, with the three offenders marked in green. Image: ONS; vandalism: CityMetric’s own.

A lot of that nothing is quite pretty – the ancient woodland, the North Downs and so forth. Nobody in their right mind would shrug their shoulders and say “concrete the lot”.

But I don’t believe for a moment that there is not a patch of land in any of them that wouldn’t be better employed as housing. Not least since Epping Forest contains seven tube stations. And do the residents of Sevenoaks and neighbouring Tonbridge & Malling (71 per cent green belt) really need all five of these golf courses within a few minutes drive of each other?

Click to expand, and find all five golf courses! Image: Google.

Neighbouring Brentwood meanwhile is getting two stops on Crossrail. In exchange, one might imagine, the local council would have been asked to contribute to solving London’s housing crisis. One would be wrong: its MP Erick Pickles was, when communities secretary, very concerned about the way development would encroach on precious chemically-coated fields.

Others of Rae’s maps show that two London boroughs are more than 50 per cent green belt:

 

That Cambridge is pretty tightly bounded by its existing green belt, si will struggle to grow without cooperating with its neighbour:

And that York has a lot of room to grow, if only anybody would let it:

There are a lot more maps – 17 more, if you want to be specific – on Alasdair’s website here. He’s also published a spreadsheet, showing his workings.

Anyway, long story short: England is not full. Lots of this green and pleasant land remains both green and pleasant. That’s worth defending. But surely we could have an honest conversation about how we do that without dooming an entire generation to over-priced and insecure housing forevermore.

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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All green belt maps courtesy of Alsadair Rae.

 
 
 
 

“Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis”

You BET! Oh GOD. Image: Getty.

Today, the mayor of London called for new powers to introduce rent controls in London. With ever increasing rents swallowing more of people’s income and driving poverty, the free market has clearly failed to provide affordable homes for Londoners. 

Created in 1988, the modern private rented sector was designed primarily to attract investment, with the balance of power weighted almost entirely in landlords’ favour. As social housing stock has been eroded, with more than 1 million fewer social rented homes today compared to 1980, and as the financialisation of homes has driven up house prices, more and more people are getting trapped private renting. In 1990 just 11 per cent of households in London rented privately, but by 2017 this figure had grown to 27 per cent; it is also home to an increasing number of families and older people. 

When I first moved to London, I spent years spending well over 50 per cent of my income on rent. Even without any dependent to support, after essentials my disposable income was vanishingly small. London has the highest rent to income ratio of any region, and the highest proportion of households spending over a third of their income on rent. High rents limit people’s lives, and in London this has become a major driver of poverty and inequality. In the three years leading up to 2015-16, 960,000 private renters were living in poverty, and over half of children growing up in private rented housing are living in poverty.

So carefully designed rent controls therefore have the potential to reduce poverty and may also contribute over time to the reduction of the housing benefit bill (although any housing bill reductions have to come after an expansion of the system, which has been subject to brutal cuts over the last decade). Rent controls may also support London’s employers, two-thirds of whom are struggling to recruit entry-level staff because of the shortage of affordable homes. 

It’s obvious that London rents are far too high, and now an increasing number of voices are calling for rent controls as part of the solution: 68 per cent of Londoners are in favour, and a growing renters’ movement has emerged. Groups like the London Renters Union have already secured a massive victory in the outlawing of section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. But without rent control, landlords can still unfairly get rid of tenants by jacking up rents.


At the New Economics Foundation we’ve been working with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority to research what kind of rent control would work in London. Rent controls are often polarising in the UK but are commonplace elsewhere. New York controls rents on many properties, and Berlin has just introduced a five year “rental lid”, with the mayor citing a desire to not become “like London” as a motivation for the policy. 

A rent control that helps to solve London’s housing crisis would need to meet several criteria. Since rents have risen three times faster than average wages since 2010, rent control should initially brings rents down. Our research found that a 1 per cent reduction in rents for four years could lead to 20 per cent cheaper rents compared to where they would be otherwise. London also needs a rent control both within and between tenancies because otherwise landlords can just reset rents when tenancies end.

Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis – but it’s not without risk. Decreases in landlord profits could encourage current landlords to exit the sector and discourage new ones from entering it. And a sharp reduction in the supply of privately rented homes would severely reduce housing options for Londoners, whilst reducing incentives for landlords to maintain and improve their properties.

Rent controls should be introduced in a stepped way to minimise risks for tenants. And we need more information on landlords, rents, and their business models in order to design a rent control which avoids unintended consequences.

Rent controls are also not a silver bullet. They need to be part of a package of solutions to London’s housing affordability crisis, including a large scale increase in social housebuilding and an improvement in housing benefit. However, private renting will be part of London’s housing system for some time to come, and the scale of the affordability crisis in London means that the question of rent controls is no longer “if”, but increasingly “how”. 

Joe Beswick is head of housing & land at the New Economics Foundation.