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.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.