Zac Goldsmith is wrong about Crossrail 2 and housing. And government documents say so

A map of the southern end of Crossrail 2. Image: TfL.

Rejoice! Rejoice! For Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative candidate to be London’s next mayor, has come up with a plan to solve London’s housing crisis.

And best of all, the city doesn’t need to develop a single square inch of green belt land to do it. All it needs is Crossrail 2 – a new north-south railway which, helpfully enough, the government’s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) came out in support of this morning.

There is, however, a tiny problem with Goldsmith’s claim that a new railway could deliver 200,000 new homes without building on any green space. The same NIC report that just backed the new railway says that it isn’t true.

Crossrail 2 can unlock 200,000 homes, sure – but only if we build on green belt, and make a bunch of other planning changes which the putative mayor doesn’t seem too keen about either.

In other words, Zac is wrong. And a part of his own government just said so.

All this takes a little explaining, so let’s start with Goldsmith’s argument. Last Thursday, he used a column in the Telegraph to get back to nature:

London is the greatest city on earth, in part because it’s also one of the greenest. (...)

But today London’s green space is under threat. A booming population means there is a huge temptation for the next mayor to build on greenfield land. It’s an approach I completely reject. (...)

There is more than enough brownfield land within Greater London to deliver the housing we need.

“Brownfield!” is the standard suggestion from anyone who wants to look like they’re getting tough on the housing crisis, without doing anything that might piss off some voters. It won’t work – there just isn’t enough of it – but it sounds like the sort of thing that might. “The solution is brownfield!” is like “The solution is prayer!” It’s taking no action and hoping really hard.

Aha – except that Zac is going to take some action, isn’t he? To be specific...

I’ll do it by working with the Government to release vast tracts of undeveloped public land, using improved transport links to unlock the most important brownfield sites. (...)

Extending the Croydon Tramlink to Sutton, for example, could deliver 20,000 new homes, while the Northern line extension to Battersea could unlock 18,000. Longer term, Crossrail 2 is expected to clear the way for 200,000 new homes.

And these new homes – they’re going to be proper old fashioned streets. None of yer rubbish:

Instead of alienating high-rises, imposed on communities, we can build beautiful streetscapes that are low-rise, high-density; designed to respect and enhance existing neighbourhoods.

So – 200,000 new homes, no high rises, and no building on the green belt. Amazing! All we have to do is build this...

The route under discussion. Click to expand. 

...and all for the low, low price of £33bn – half from London, and half from the national Treasury.

Which will obviously be a big hit with the rest of the country.

Anyway. The National Infrastructure Commission just said we should build it - “It has huge benefits to London but also national benefits too,” said its boss, Lord Adonis. And its report agrees that it could, indeed, unlock 200,000 homes.

Housing that could be unlocked by Crossrail 2 (low and high scenarios based on planning assumptions). Click to expand. Source: National Infrastructure Commission.

But there’s a but.

TfL has undertaken extensive work to explore how Crossrail 2 can facilitate the delivery of housing. The following planning policy changes underpin Crossrail 2’s housing case:

  • Industrial land release: An increased rate of Strategic Industrial Location (SIL) release for housing development.
  • Density: An increase in the housing density levels applied by the London Plan (including the intensification of existing housing estates)
  • Metropolitan Open Land/Green Belt release: Densification around Crossrail 2 stations; including, where appropriate in specific cases, the limited release of Metropolitan Open Land (MOL) and Green Belt land.

Emphasis ours.

So – Crossrail 2 is emphatically not a magic bullet that’ll save us from building on the green belt. To deliver on its promise, Transport for London and the National Infrastructure Commission have both specifically said we will have to build on the green belt, and increase density.

And 200,000 homes is only about four years supply anyway.

And the headline of Goldsmiths’s article - “London’s green spaces are safer with me, not Sadiq Khan” – is total nonsense because Khan has specifically said he won’t build on the green belt. Because he is being just as disingenuous about how easy it’s going to be to solve London’s housing crisis as Goldsmith is.

The mayoral election is on Thursday 5 May. We’ve got eight more weeks of this. Eight long, depressing weeks.

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