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.

 
 
 
 

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.