The housing bill doesn’t go far enough. It’s time to build on the green belt

Not enough of these: houses in outer London. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty.

Michael Thirkettle is chief executive of property consultancy McBains Cooper.

The recent declaration that the government wants to see 1m new homes built by 2020 raised hopes among those desperate to get on the housing ladder – and raised eyebrows among those in the construction industry. But even though this is a laudable ambition, it will be impossible to reach that number without a radical re-think of how – and where – we allow new homes to be built.

So the much anticipated housing and planning bill, published this week, included further relaxation of planning rules for building on brownfield sites. “Unlocking the potential of brownfield” is the current buzz phrase.

However, although the measures in the bill give automatic planning permission in principle on brownfield sites – to bring forward more land to build new homes quicker, while protecting the green belt – the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors calculates this will only enable 226,000 new homes to be built over the next four years. Furthermore, as the RICS point out, some sites will still take a long time to see any development at all.

Admittedly, some of these delays can be down to “land-banking”, in which large developers sit on brownfield land because they hope its value will increase. But not all blame can be laid at developers’ doors. Often there is a significant cost associated with decontaminating former industrial land, while some of the earmarked brownfield sites are in bleak areas where people may not want to live, such as next to busy, dangerous roads. Little wonder there is a lack of appetite to build.

Perhaps more pertinently, there is not enough brownfield to meet development needs anyway. Reports show that around one million new homes are required around London and the south east; there is enough brownfield capacity to meet just a fifth of this number.

Even if, as the Campaign to Protection of Rural England calculates, there is enough brownfield to deliver 1m homes, experts like Sir Michael Lyons, who led a major commission into housebuilding, say there will still be a deficit of 2m homes by 2020 if current building trends continue.

That’s why we need to be far bolder and open up more of the green belt for development. Building on the green belt is still seen by many as sacrilege – but the very term is an emotionally-charged one which is often used in a cavalier fashion.

Much of the green belt nowhere near resembles a bucolic image of England’s green and pleasant land. In many cases, it is scrubland, former brownfield sites, or vacant land with little value. In the capital, according to a report by London First, around 40 per cent of designated green belt includes airfields, water treatment works and old hospitals.

Contrary to popular belief, built-up areas comprise less than 10 per cent of England and Wales. And, as Paul Cheshire of the LSE points out, half of this area comprises gardens with actual houses only covering around one per cent of this area: meanwhile the green belt covers 13 per cent.

Professor Cheshire says intelligently-selected green spaces around cities could still be maintained. A 1km ring inside the M25 would include enough land to meet London’s housing needs for a generation – and would represent just 0.1 per cent of England’s surface.

The green belt has not halted development; it has just pushed it out into rural areas not defined as green belt, meaning longer commutes for people and more environmental damage.

One more advantage of the green belt is that good transport links are already in place. According to the surveyors Countrywide, within walking distance of 80 railway stations in greenbelt on the edge of English cities there is enough unused land to provide nearly 500,000 new homes. In short, it would mean a sustainable solution to the addressing the problem of housing supply, without a cost to the environment.

Successive governments, have unsurprisingly, shied away from introducing reforms which would allow more development of the green belt, seeing it as political suicide. But with the next general election almost five years away, the opportunity is there for some brave decisions that will truly help address the housing crisis. Green space could still be protected in other ways: for example, the government could set a limit on development by only allowing construction within a restricted radius of transport hubs.

The question remains whether policymakers are bold enough to give the green light to developing more of the green belt, or whether we’ll continue to be stuck at red – making this latest bill just one more missed opportunity to address the housing crisis.

Michael Thirkettle is chief executive of McBains Cooper, an international construction and property consultancy.


To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.