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.

 
 
 
 

It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.