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.

 
 
 
 

The Réseau Express Métropolitain: the multi-billion dollar light rail project Montreal never asked for

Montreal from the summit of Mont Royal. Image: Getty.

The Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM) is the 67-kilometre, C$6.3bn light rail project Montreal never asked for.

It is the single largest transit project in Montreal in half a century. Not since the construction of the Métro has there been as bold a proposal: an entirely new mass-transit system that would have the effect of radically altering the city’s urban landscape.

Conceived, planned and costed by the Province of Quebec’s institutional investor, the Caisse de dépot et placement du Québec (CDPQ), the REM is currently under construction and slated to become operational between 2021 and 2023.

Once completed, it is supposed to provide high-frequency, intermediate-volume light-rail service on a regional level: connecting suburbs with the city centre along three axes and linking Montreal’s central business district with its international airport.

The REM may even connect to an as-yet unbuilt baseball stadium, and politicians have even proposed extending it over hundreds of kilometres to provide inter-city service. Indeed, the REM has been strongly endorsed – by both the federal and provincial governments that back it – as a panacea for all of Greater Montreal’s transit and traffic congestion problems.

Since it was first proposed in 2015, the REM has been championed above all else as a guaranteed-to-succeed “public-public partnership”. A win-win, where various levels of government cooperate and coordinate with an arm’s-length government agency to produce much-needed new transit and transport infrastructure.

Unlike the more commonly known public-private partnership (of which there are some notable recent failures in Quebec), the obvious insinuation is that – this time – there’s no private interest or profit to worry about.

PR aside, the pension funds managed by the CDPQ are private, not public, wealth. The CDPQ’s entire raison d’etre is to profit. It has even gone to the lengths of “mandating” the REM to provide it an annual profit of about 10 per cent, a cost to be assumed by the governments of Quebec and Canada in the event the REM isn’t profitable.

The law that has made the REM possible has other interesting components. The REM is legally distinct from and superior to other public transit agencies and the extant regional planning authority. It has exclusive access to publicly-funded transit infrastructure. There’s even a “non-compete” clause with the city’s existing mass transit services, as well as special surtax on all properties within a 1km radius of each of the 26 proposed stations.

This latter element takes on a new dimension when you consider the CDPQ’s real-estate arm, Ivanhoé-Cambridge, has a near total monopoly on the properties surrounding the future downtown nexus of the REM, and is invested in suburban shopping centres that will soon host REM stations.

It seems that Montreal isn't so much getting a new mass transit system as a pension fund is using a new transport system to stimulate growth in a faltering if not moribund commercial and residential property sector.

Quebec’s public pensions have historically invested in suburban sprawl. As this market becomes increasingly untenable, and populations shift back towards the city centre, the REM is supposed to stimulate growth in “transit-oriented developments” centred on its future stations. The new surtaxes are likely intended to force sales of land for immediate redevelopment, so that new homes are ready to move into as soon as the system becomes operational.

It’s important here to remember that the city of Montreal wasn’t given several billion dollars by the government with which to spend developing its mass transit system. Rather, Quebec’s former premier asked the CDPQ to come up with a way to integrate several long-standing yet unrealized transit proposals. These included a light-rail system over Montreal’s new Champlain Bridge, an express train to Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, and a dedicated commuter rail line for the Western suburbs. It was the CDPQ that proposed a fully-automated light-rail system that would use existing technology as well as some of Montreal’s extant railway infrastructure as an inexpensive way of uniting several different projects into an assumedly more efficient one.

So far so good. Cities need more mass transit, especially in the era of climate change, and Montreal contends with regular congestion both on its roadways and various mass transit systems. Moreover, access to the city’s already generally-high quality public transit systems is an important driver of property values and new residential development.

Considering the evident need for more transit, the REM theoretically provides an opportunity to kill several birds with one stone. Better still, the REM will in all likelihood stimulate the transit-oriented developments and re-urbanisation necessary for a more sustainable future city.

A map of the proposed network, with metro lines in colour and commuter rail in grey. Click to expand. Image: Calvin411/Wikimedia Commons.

The REM is the business “test case” on which two new government entities are based; the CDPQ’s infrastructure development arm, and the Canadian government’s infrastructure development bank.

The REM is also intended to stimulate economic activity in important economic sectors – such as engineering, construction and technology – that could soon be in high-demand internationally. Both the governments of Quebec and Canada see tremendous value in the economic potential of infrastructure mega projects at home and abroad.

This aside, the actual development of the REM has been complicated by what appears to be a bad case of over-promising and under-delivering, at least in terms of how seamlessly it could be integrated into the city’s extant transit and transport systems.

Though the train as originally conceived was intended to use an existing electrified railway line as the backbone of the network, it now appears that the REM cannot in fact be adapted to the line’s current voltage. The entire line, and the tunnel it passes through, requires a thorough overhaul, something that had last been completed in the mid-1990s. The new electrification, as well as the reconstruction of the tunnel, will cut it off from the regional commuter rail network. Rather than have different types of rail systems share existing infrastructure, the REM will force the premature (and unnecessary) retirement of a fleet of high-volume electric trains.

Consider that while the REM will connect the city with its international airport, it’s not planned to go just one kilometre farther to connect the airport with a major multi-modal transit station. Dorval Station integrates a sizeable suburban bus terminus with a train station that serves both regional commuter rail as well as the national railways network.

It’s difficult to understand how and why such an obvious and useful connection wasn’t considered. Given long-standing interest in high-speed and/or high-frequency rail service in Canada, La Presse columnist François Cardinal has noted that a REM connection between airport and a likely future rail hub would extend access to international air travel far further than just downtown Montreal.


The REM was also supposed to integrate seamlessly into the Montreal’s built environment, its promoters insisting construction could be completed with minimal inconvenience to current transit users. By the end of this year, REM-related construction will force a two-year closure of Montreal’s most-used commuter rail line, and sever the most recently-built rail line off from the transit hubs in the centre of the city. Tens of thousands of commuters throughout the Montreal region will be forced to make do with already over-saturated bus and métro service.

Though public consultations revealed these and other flaws, concerns raised by the public, by professionals and even some politicians were largely ignored. The REM also failed its environmental assessment. The provincial agency responsible for such evaluations, the BAPE, stated baldly that the project wasn't ready for primetime and lambasted the CDPQ’s lack of transparency. In turn, the BAPE was accused of exceeding its mandate. The REM made a similarly poor impression, with transit users groups, architects and urban planners criticizing the project in whole and in part.

The main points of contention are that the REM won’t do much in the short term to alleviate congestion across the city’s existing – and comparatively expansive - mass-transit network. Quite the opposite: it is already beginning to exacerbate the problem.

Because the REM was conceived without the involvement of either the city’s main transit agency or the regional transit planning authority, its progress is hampered by a wide-variety of problems that would otherwise likely have been planned for. And because it’s a mass-transit solution to what is primarily a political consideration, the REM will provide higher-frequency service of dubious necessity to the city’s low-density suburban hinterland, much of which already has ample commuter-focused transit service. The high-density urban-core, which is most in need of transit expansion, will benefit perhaps least of all.

While it’s unlikely the REM will fail outright, it’s also unlikely to stimulate much new interest in using mass-transit services: it will first have to win back those who may abandon mass-transit while the REM is being built. Providing higher-frequency service to suburbia is the kind of thing that sounds good in theory, but doesn’t respond to commuters’ actual needs. Arguably the REM’s best feature – its real-estate development potential – has been somewhat obscured from public view because of obvious conflicts of interest. The REM’s limitations – and there are many – will for the most part only become known once the system is operational, at which point it will be too late.

The REM provides interesting theoretical avenues worthy of exploration – particularly the potential relationships between new transit development and how it may stimulate new growth in the housing sector. But building a new transit system – especially one this large and complex – ultimately requires the fullest possible degree of cooperation; with transit users, extant transit agencies and regional planning bodies.

Ignoring the recommendations of experts, the public and government assessment agencies for the sake of expediency is never a wise idea. When it comes to designing and implementing the mass-transit systems of the future, the needs, wants and opinions of users must be paramount. In Montreal, it appears as though they were an afterthought and an inconvenience.

Whether Montrealers will be able to vote with their wallets remains to be seen. Under the specific conditions set with which to integrate the REM into Montreal's overal mass transit scheme, other types of transit have either been replaced by the REM or will have their routes and schedules modified to better serve it. The REM removes operational redundancy between different systems in an effort to be more efficient, but this will likely have the effect of forcing many Montreal transit users to use a one-size-fits-all solution that doesn't suit anyone's needs

It’s difficult to imagine how forcing people to use a transit system they never asked for will encourage greater use.