7 London boroughs are more than 25% green belt

London's beautiful green belt. Image of Rainham Marshes courtesy of Romfordian, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ask whether it's time to re-think Britain's green belts, as we often do in these parts, and you're likely to get a mixed response. Part of your audience – the younger, more urban, more-likely-to-be-private-tenants part – will cheer you on. But a significant minority will call you all sorts of names, accuse you of being in the pocket of the construction industry, and probably at some point blame immigration.

Such is life. But since this debate isn't going to go away any time soon, we thought it might be worth injecting some figures into it. Let’s consider the Metropolitan Green Belt which has restricted London’s growth since 1938.

There are 33 boroughs in London, of which no fewer than 19 have at least some protected Green Belt land within them. This chart shows the size of those 19 by area (total bar length), and the proportion of each which is designated as Green Belt (the bit that's, well, green). We’ve taken our data from government figures, hosted here.

 

The first thing that you notice is that Bromley is enormous. At around 150 km2, it takes up very nearly a tenth of the entire capital, and it's larger than the eight smallest boroughs put together. (These are all in inner London, so don't feature on the graph.)

The next thing you notice is that more than half of that vast south eastern borough is green belt land (to be exact, 52 per cent of it).

In all, there’s around 77 km2 of Green Belt in Bromley: enough to swallow the City, Kensington, Islington, Hammersmith and Hackney whole, and still have room for most of Tower Hamlets. That's an area that houses nearly 1m people.

We're not seriously suggesting putting that many people in the green fields of Bromley. We're just pointing out that you could. Look:

Bromley isn't the only large outer borough that is, quite literally, half empty. Up in the north east, Havering is actually even roomier, with nearly 54 per cent of its land classified as Green Belt. Again, you can see this on the map, which shows that huge swathes of the borough are effectively empty.

To the west, Hillingdon is 43 per cent empty, while another four boroughs are more than a quarter Green Belt.

The point we're getting at here is that there is a lot of land classified as Green Belt even within London. In all, it's more than a fifth of the capital's land area (22.4 per cent).

As you might expect, the neighbouring areas are often even more in the grip of the Green Belt. Here's the same chart, but this time showing counties:

Now, “green belt" is actually at times a misleading label. The name evokes beautiful rolling fields, and some of this land will live up to that image. But it also includes quarries, and scrubland, and golf courses, and pony clubs. Some of this land is of value to the community; some of it isn't.

Nonetheless, there are those who see it as inviolable – who squeal at any suggestion we should re-label it as anything other than green belt, or develop it to meet London's housing needs. People who imagine that giving up even one blade of grass will turn the entirety of England into Houston within weeks.


But what it is that terrifies them so remains a complete mystery to me, because they are winning, hands down. Between 2007 and 2010, London lost approximately 140 hectares of green belt land, but gained another 100 elsewhere. In total, then, it lost 40. For those who are keeping score, that's just over 0.1 per cent of all its green belt land.

And this, remember, is not 0.1 per cent of the entire green belt – it’s 0.1 per cent of the portion of the green belt which is contained within the official boundaries of the city. The green belt as a whole is approximately 15 times larger, and that isn’t going anywhere either.

It'd probably be foolish to scrap the green belt altogether, and simply let the construction industry let rip. But it's equally naive to imagine that this land is, and must always remain, inviolable.

London can build the extra homes that its population needs. We've more than enough space.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.