The pressure on the British government to reform the green belt is growing

A particularly attractive patch of London's green belt. Image of Rainham Marshes courtesy of Romfordian, via Wikimedia Commons.

Garages on scrublands, old industrial land, roadside verges and empty spaces – these are the kinds of places most people would agree could be better used for housing.

That’s especially the case around London, with its high housing prices and housing shortages – yet locations such as these are protected as part of the city’s green belt, making it impossible to build housing on them. This is despite that fact that these sites are a far cry from the rolling countryside and parkland most people think that green belt restrictions are in place to protect.

That’s why Centre for Cities recently came together with Siobhain McDonagh MP, and 60 other signatories from across the political spectrum, to submit an open letter calling for reform of green belt restrictions. (It was also is part of a joint submission to the Government’s consultation on the draft National Planning Policy Framework.)

Specifically, the letter called for green belt land that’s within 1km of train and tube stations and 45 minutes away from Zone 1 London to be released for new homes. We reckon this could supply enough land to build 1m homes, more than enough for London’s needs over the next ten years.

Our 2014 report Building Homes Where We Need Them gives an idea of just how much land near to existing infrastructure is available on the capital’s green belt, using a slightly different geography (2km rather than 1km, and including some stations that are further away than 45 minutes from Zone 1):

Opportunities for new homes in London. Image: Centre for Cities.

Releasing some land in these areas would help address the fundamental problem underpinning the housing crisis in successful cities such as London: supply. For years our cities have not been able to release enough land to accommodate their population and economic growth. This shortage has pushed the average house price in London up to almost 17 times local incomes – compared to five and a half times local incomes in Liverpool, for example – despite London’s higher wages.

Moreover, the green belt does not just restrict housing supply around London: it also results in housing development leapfrogging the green belt, and being built in areas far away from London, as demonstrated by the map below from our recent City Space Race report. That means longer commutes for people working in London, and it’s also bad news for the environment, as it results in more carbon-intensive journeys into the capital each day.

Net additional house built, by local authority. Image: Centre for Cities.

The reality is that releasing more land in or near London where we can build more homes is the only way we can tackle the capital’s housing shortage. This is exactly what our joint letter proposed.

Crucially, it also suggests releasing new land in the right places. Land next to train and tube stations is exceptionally valuable, especially that on lines heading into London. If we allowed people rather than bushes to live in these areas closer to the city, we’d be able to minimise new infrastructure costs and commuting by car. In combination, we could make housing more affordable, support economic growth in high demand cities, and help the climate from reduced future carbon emissions.


What is striking is just how wide the coalition of groups and individuals in favour of green belt reform is. Signatories of the letter include MPs from both sides of the chamber, social housing associations including Clarion and Peabody, ‘neoliberal’ think tanks like the Adam Smith Institute, housing campaigning groups PricedOut and London YIMBY, and business groups such as the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Many of these groups hold vastly different political outlooks, but all agree that existing green belt restrictions are inflexible and out of date. In other words, there is growing consensus across the political spectrum that these policies need to change.

It’s right that precious and exceptional countryside should be protected, and other solutions will also be needed to address London’s housing crisis, such as increasing density. But as our cities grow and change it’s also right that we allow some green belt land – especially those areas in which there is very little green to be seen – to become new communities for families and new neighbours. More and more people across society agree that reforms to the green belt are urgently needed – and the political pressure for the government to act on these concerns is only likely to grow.

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

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.