Relaxing green belt laws might work for London – but what about the rest of the UK?

Look at the poor innocent greenery. Do you really want to build on this? Image: Hidden London.

The economics of supply and demand is a fickle friend to urban planners everywhere.

Say you work in a city with traffic jams, and the council decides to increase road capacity. In the short run, productivity improves, as getting about the city becomes easier. But in the long run, the demand for roads increases as travelling by car becomes a more viable option for an increased number of commuters.

Previously, these commuters might have taken public transport, or chosen not to travel. However, now that road capacity is greater, they are compelled to drive.

This results in a return to the status quo of traffic jams, just on bigger roads. This phenomenon is ubiquitous in American cities such as Los Angeles, where public transport plays second fiddle to private.

The same is true for housing. When demand for housing is high, but supply is low, common sense would dictate that housing supply ought to be increased in the areas where demand is greatest. However, in the long run, much like on an American highway, housing demand will increase once more – because the area where demand is greatest is perceived as more affordable than before.

Brits who might otherwise resign themselves to a semi in Luton might jump at the chance to own property in London if it was presented as being affordable. People change their habits in response to economic signals.

This is what economists call “animal spirits”. Consumers are more confident that they can buy that house, or drive that car, even when the prices have hardly changed, simply because an announced change in supply triggers changes in consumer behaviour.

In fact, we British ought to know this. After the Second World War, the United Kingdom experienced an unprecedented increase in house building.

Metro-Land, part of the vast surge of housebuilding in the 20th century. Image: Cyril A Wilkinson.

Annoyingly, this didn’t lead to any long-term mitigation of the absurd house prices that we face today. The demand for housing in London and the South East is so great that, even after paving over most of Middlesex, we still couldn’t make London affordable in the long run.

And yet, here we are, again discussing paving something over. This time, the mildly inaccurately titled green belt is in the iron sights of house hunters.

Fair enough ­– demand in London is reaching a fever pitch, the supply of housing has been out of step for decades, and the Tories are quite rightly afraid that young people’s inability to get on the property ladder is haemorrhaging their poll ratings among the under-40s.

This seems like a reasonable idea. Parts of the green belt are hardly that green, we don’t need to use up that much of it, and large swathes of green belt are currently located within reach of a Tube station.

Yet with that admission, the problem becomes clear: green belts are not created equal. “Loosening the green belt” is so often just a turn of phrase for removing the Metropolitan Green Belt (the one that surrounds London), because it is under the greatest duress.

Although other green belts were considered important at the time of their implementation, they do not command the same gravitas and controversy afforded by London’s own.

However, a policy to loosen London’s belt alone could be construed as unfair and partisan. Therefore, such a policy would probably invoke green belts across the United Kingdom. How would different green belts be affected?

Railway line extensions into Middlesex led to huge levels of home-building. Image: Metropolitan Railway.

The Metropolitan Green Belt would clearly experience a high level of development as soon as possible, as relatively cheap sites became available in boroughs such as Barnet and Bromley.

This would result in increased economic activity in these areas, due to greater population density. At this point, animal spirits come into play. A greater population density in and around London would cement the South East’s position as the economic centre of the United Kingdom.

Therefore, the demand for housing in the South East would once again increase over time. This means that any serious reduction in prices promised by a loosening of the green belt would likely be less than expected.

Comparatively, a loosening of the green belt in other parts of the United Kingdom, while potentially valuable, would hardly touch the levels of population growth and boosted economic activity experienced around the capital. It could be argued that initiatives such as HS2 and the long-term development of KIBs (Knowledge Intensive Business Services) could improve the situation across the United Kingdom, but these initiatives are only designed for the Birmingham and Manchester-type cities of today – rather than the grander cities that a loosening of the green belt presupposes.


So: loosening the green belt is an inherently London-centric proposal. Just because demand is greatest in the capital, that does not mean that freeing up housing supply is the best blanket policy for solving structural housing issues across the entire country, especially when we admit that solving said structural issues is rather difficult.

Workers have been migrating across the North-South divide for centuries, moving to where they believe the best employment opportunities reside, wilfully abandoning their homes in the belief that the grass is greener in the South.

Opening up the green belt for development now would encourage that mentality, while depriving northern cities of a chance to develop themselves into true regional powerhouses where people want to stay and work. That chance should surely come first.

If we want to increase opportunities for growth in London, we need to make sure that the same opportunities exist across the United Kingdom. Otherwise, we risk perpetuating centuries-old geographical inequalities into the future, simply by opening up the green belt. Those arent the values that ‘London Is Open’ stands for.

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Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.