This map shows quite how little land London has left to build housing on

Land use restrictions, as far as the eye can see. Image: Neal Hudson/Savills.

Average UK house prices are up again – by £3,000 in just one month! Yay, huzzah, let joy be unconfined, woo.

Or, to put it another way, we're screwed.

Much of the problem is that (spoilers) we don't have enough houses; and much of the reason for that can be traced to the fact that we don't really have anywhere to put them. A research note published last week by Savill's researcher Neal Hudson makes the point.

In all, Hudson says, drawing on government figures, just 11 per cent of England is developed. Which isn't very much, and implies that the whole “this country is full” narrative is nonsense.

But that figure understates quite how much land is free to build on: much of England, for one reason or another, is untouchable. In all 13 per cent of the country is classified as “green belt”. National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), and Sites of Special Scientific Interest between them take out 29 per cent.

In all – the numbers don't quite add up, because the two categories overlap – around 40 per cent of England is out of bounds to housebuilders and pretty much anyone else with a JCB.

Things get worse when you look at the area where housing pressure is greatest. Hudson's note also includes a map of the south east of England. Blue is green belt (obviously), and red is land covered by other restrictions – AONBs, National Parks, flood plains, et al. Dark grey is land that’s already built up.

Image: Neal Hudson/Savills.

Which leaves white. So that’s where we can actually build, right?

Well, er, maybe not actually. To explain why, it's worth zooming in on London. We've labelled a few of the larger white areas.

Image: Neal Hudson/Savills.

Now some of these areas – the Wandle Valley, the various ex-industrial wastelands that make up “London Riverside” – are already seen as development areas.

But others have got to be off limits. “Building housing in Heathrow Airport” is surely a non-starter to anyone except Boris Johnson. Meanwhile Hampstead Heath, Hackney Marsh, and the “green chain” of parks in south east London may not technically be green belt; but in any sane world, surely they should be treated as sacrosanct anyway, right?

On closer inspection*, in fact, many of these places are – they come under the London-specific designation of "metropolitan open land". For some reason this seems to have been missed from the map.

(Full disclosure: I'm not actually sure what's going on with the gap in the landscape around the A40 just north of RAF Northolt, and after googling for 10 minutes, gave up trying to work it out. Get it touch if you fancy plugging this gap in my knowledge.)

So – there's hardly any land in London that's free for development, and large chunks of that which there is isn't really free for development at all.

Two lessons present themselves from all this.

1. A land use policy that makes huge swathes of golf courses clinging to the M25 untouchable, but fails to protect Hackney Marshes, is just possibly not fit for purpose.

Seriously, look at the state of this.

Annotated extract from Google's map of the Ilford-Romford area of east London. 

2. If you can't build outwards, the only way is up.

That's because, with almost no spare land that is both a) empty and b) untouched by land-use restrictions, the only option left to house the 100,000 or so people who arrive in London each year is to redevelop land that's already built up. "Brownfield" will help but, according to estimates we've covered before, will get you less than halfway to meeting London's need.

So, to plug the gap, we either have to knock things down and rebuild them at higher density (this tends to focus on council estates, and go down brilliantly with the people who live on them); or take smaller patches of land, but build them up much, much higher than they were before.

If you ever wondered why London's skyline is becoming more and more crowded with skyscrapers, this is why.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He tweets, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

*NOTE: This paragraph wasn't in the original article. It was added, in response to comments on social media, on the morning of 19 August. Never let it be said we are unresponsive to reader comments, except when we don't want to be.

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.