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.

 
 
 
 

What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.


Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.