The CPRE is wrong about the green belt – but not quite so wrong as the Telegraph

A house, of the sort which you will never own. Image: Getty.

Who’s been a naughty anti-housing pressure group, then? The Daily Telegraph news desk, that’s who.

I know, right? Plot twist.

Today, CPRE London – a group associated with, but independent of, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England – has put out a report which argues that (I paraphrase) the ENTIRE COUNTRYSIDE will soon be LITERALLY BURIED UNDER CONCRETE:

Drawing on local evidence provided by CPRE branches in Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, London and Surrey, the report demonstrates that the London Green Belt is, arguably, under greater threat than ever. There are now plans for 203 sites within the London Green Belt including proposals for 123,528 homes.

The word “arguably” is doing a lot of work in that paragraph.

To get to that figure, CPRE London and its partner in crime, London Green Belt Council, have used “local plans” – documents councils are required to compile outlining their plans for their local built environment. Collect all the local plans together, add up the number of houses proposed for the green belt, and, bingo, you’ve got some TERRIFYING BIG NUMBERS about TOWER BLOCKS ON THE GREEN BELT.

I have two big problems with this. The first is that the methodology is iffy. These numbers have been collated by a lot of local CPRE branches, without being independently verified. They also relate to bits of paper, rather than any actual building work.

So these are not real homes, nor even a comprehensive guide to plans for them. We don’t know how many homes will actually be build on London’s green belt over the next few years – but we know it is vanishingly unlikely to be precisely 123,528.

The second problem with this report is that, while 123,528 sounds like a big number, it isn’t, really. It’s about as many homes as Britain currently builds in a year, and under half the number we should be building to meet demand. Across the entire south east of England, over god knows what time period, it really isn’t that many.

(I have a third problem with this report too: to whit, that if we’re ever going to get out of this mess, I think we bloody well should be building on the green belt. But this one’s a matter of opinion, and I can hardly expect any part of the CPRE to agree with me, so hey.)

So – the CPRE London’s report is, if not exactly wrong, then not exactly right, either. Its errors, however, as of nothing compared to those introduced in the Telegraph’s write up of it:

A report to be published this week from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has uncovered blueprints for more than 123,000 new homes on 203 sites in the London Green Belt.


The report found in Hertfordshire 84,000 hectares (207,000 acres) are under threat, as well as 121,000 hectares (300,000 acres) in Surrey and 97,000 hectares (240,000 acres) in Essex.

Two clunkers jump out from this. The first is that the report comes not from the CPRE, but from CPRE London. A spokesman for the former, who gave the impression he’d been fielding a lot of these calls, was at pains to point out that the two bodies are different.

The second, bigger error is that those hectares “under threat” are actually just the total hectares included in the green belt in each county.

The Telegraph reporter has misread the CPRE report, and implied that every single square inch of green belt in the Home Counties is under threat from the bulldozers. Take that literally, and it implies that the population of Surrey is to increase by some 800 per cent:

While we’re at it, the Telegraph report also includes a chart showing how proposed housing-on-green-belt increases between March 2015 and March 2016. Which doesn’t reflect any actually increase in housing, but only the increase in the number of local plans available.

My favourite part about this Telegraph story is that it includes a paragraph explaining why it’s wrong...

A Communities and Local Government Department spokesmen said: “These claims are totally misleading as they are based purely on projections in Local Plans, including Plans not yet adopted.”

...and yet, there it sits, contented in its wrongess.

I very much doubt this is an act of malice on the Telegraph reporter’s part. More likely, he wrote the report quickly, didn’t pay quite enough attention, and promptly quintupled the population of Essex.

But it nonetheless highlights one of the biggest reasons it’s so difficult to sort out the housing crisis. The public, especially the home-owning share of it, is deeply paranoid that we are on the verge of concreting the entirety of southern England; newspapers who depend on their business collude in these delusions.

And the resulting public pressure makes it all but impossible to make even minor changes to the green belt – even if our stubborn refusal to do so simply guarantees ever more agonising housing costs.

It’s a great result if you work at the CPRE, or even at CPRE London. If you’re young or poor and looking for secure accommodation? Not so much.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.