Siobhain McDonagh MP: Why I’m leading a campaign to build a million new homes on parts of London’s green belt

The green belt in Greater London. Image: Barney Stringer/Quod.

Siobhain McDonagh, the Labour MP for Mitcham & Morden, recently submitted Early Day Motion 1164, under the heading, “Housing and London’s Green Belt”. It states:

That this House notes with concern the housing crisis faced across the country; recognises London and its surrounding areas as the region with the highest rate of housing need; acknowledges the value in much of the Green Belt that prevents urban sprawl or offers vital environmental protections but considers the scattered plots of Green Belt land within a 45 minute travel time of London's Zone 1 and less than a 10 minute walk to a train station to be ill-fitting to the purpose of the Green Belt; further recognises the important opportunity that this land offers with space for over 1 million new homes; and believes that there should be a presumption in favour of housebuilding on this land.

Here, she explains why.

There’s a garage site a stone’s throw away from Tottenham Hale Station that is designated as Green Belt, but there is not a blade of grass to be seen. In fact, apart from a green car parked in the garage, there is no green to be seen anywhere.

Why does this matter? Because this Green Belt designation has prevented a Housing Association from building affordable homes on the site.

Within a 10-minute walk of London’s train stations are dozens of scrappy plots of so-called ‘Green Belt’ land. They are not flowing fields; far from it. Unless you were told of its designation, you would never dream of identifying it as Green Belt. But, when aggregated, this is land that could provide enough space for 1m new homes in our capital – a big contribution to solving the capital’s housing crisis.

And believe me, “crisis” is no understatement of the situation we’re now in. In more than two decades as a Member of Parliament, I have never seen the housing crisis reach the unprecedented levels that we currently see – whether it is the 128,000 children living in appalling temporary accommodation (including in the heart of a working industrial estate in my constituency), the third of millennials who will be trapped in the private rented sector for their entire lives, or even the 4,751 rough sleepers on our streets.

Despite Theresa May promising she would “dedicate her premiership” to fixing the housing crisis, her government could not be further from achieving their target of 300,000 new homes per year. Not since 1969 has our country even come close to reaching these levels – and that was back when Councils and Housing Associations were building new homes.

Rather than getting on and building, the priority for the government appears to be a never-ending flow of reports, discussions, words and promises.

The time for words is over. The time for action is now. And my plan for more than a million new homes for our capital is highly feasible.

I have no desire to call for building in our countryside or on the flowing fields of green that we should be so grateful to have. My frustration is not with parks and hills or areas of natural beauty. And, of course, I have no intention of calling for housing in areas with environmental protection.

Oh, how lovely: green belt land in Ealing. Image: author provided.

But the reality is that there are loads of sites like the garage site at Tottenham Hale.

But from a waste site in Hillingdon to the mound in Ealing pictured above, surrounded by barbed wire fencing, the Green Belt in London is not always the luscious and green land that its branding leads us to believe. Instead, it is often an unsuitable designation and an unwarranted barrier to building new homes.

So, what can be done? Yet another consultation, this time regarding the National Planning Policy Framework, provides the perfect opportunity to make this non-green Green Belt case. The government has the ideal opportunity to relax planning guidelines and de-designate this land once and for all. Now is the time for them to finally turn their promises into action.


I’ll be submitting my contribution to the consultation and I will not be alone. Dozens of parliamentarians, academics, economists, thinktanks, charities, and housing associations have given this proposal a green light and will be co-signing my submission. Though our views may differ on what has caused this crisis or what else could be done to solve it, we all agree that these scattered plots of so-called Green Belt land are falsely designated – and are preventing a million families in our capital from the homes that they are desperate for.

This proposal would not solve this country’s housing crisis. But it would be a big step in the right direction, going to the very heart of the problem. It would give hope to the 80,000 families stuck in temporary accommodation, to the fifth of England’s population trapped in the private rented sector, and to the thousands of men and women who sleep on our streets – all of whom are in desperate need for an increase in housing supply.

The time for words is over. The time for action is now.

Siobhain McDonagh is the Labour MP for Mitcham & Morden.

If your organisation would like to co-sign Siobhain’s submission, please contact her at mcdonaghs@parliament.uk before the deadline of Thursday 10 May.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.