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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

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.