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.

 
 
 
 

“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.