Experts call for more London green belt homes, Mayor favours ‘brownfield first’ approach

The Centre for London think tank have argued for more building on London’s rural ring, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

Green belt land in Barnet
Photo by Daniella Bird on Unsplash

Parts of London’s green belt must be opened up to allow home-building if the capital’s housing crisis is to be solved, politicians were warned at a summit on Wednesday.

Experts at the Centre for London think tank argue that while increasing the density of homes in the inner city and suburbs is crucial, the crisis can only be fixed by building on sections of the city’s rural ring.

They were joined by Tory Lord Shaun Bailey, who said “a politician, somewhere, is going to have to be brave about where we build”.

But Sadiq Khan’s housing deputy, Tom Copley, played down the idea, saying the mayor favours a “brownfield first” approach, while acknowledging that Labour have promised if they form the next Government to allow building on “low quality” parts of the green belt.

Established in 1938 to prevent uncontrolled urban sprawl, the capital’s green belt has grown to cover an area three times larger than London itself.

Speaking at the London Housing Summit, researcher Jon Tabbush said the green belt “comes from an era when we had different policies to deal with housing demand”, such as through building New Towns like Stevenage and Harlow.

“We don’t have that any more, so we have this restrictive policy framework, without outlets for growth,” he said.

He added that this is causing a “structural unfairness” for Londoners, who are being lumped with higher housing costs and are therefore likelier to be living in poverty than in most other English regions.

It is “not plausible”, Mr Tabbush said, to close the yawning gap between the supply and demand of homes by only building more housing within London’s existing boundaries. While there is still “a role” for the green belt in providing a “more planned approach” for containing growth, he pointed to Denmark as a way of reforming it.

“In Copenhagen, they have what is called the ‘green fingers’ approach. They have a belt, but then they make sustainable, rail-led ‘incursions’ [of housing] outside the belt,” he said.

“That would be a perfectly reasonable way of doing it. If we centred it [new development] on rail [lines], it would end up looking like that anyway, with some gaps in the middle.”

Lord Bailey, a London Assembly member who stood for mayor in 2021, made similar remarks at the summit, saying there was a need to be “realistic” about the supply of land in London.

“When you say ‘green belt’ to the public, they imagine the rolling hills or the Yorkshire Downs or whatever it is,” he said. “Lots of it, particularly round big cities like London, don’t look like that.

“I think, as a group of professionals, we’re going to have to start having that conversation with people. What do you want? Do you want a park, or do you want a house for some of the most vulnerable people in London?”

But Mr Copley, the deputy mayor for housing, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS): “In London we’re quite clear about being ‘brownfield first’. We absolutely have to prioritise building on brownfield land.”

Pressed on whether that would solve the housing crisis on its own, he said: “Brownfield land is a recyclable resource. We’ve got to be looking at building on vacant brownfield sites, intensifying areas that are already built on, as well as looking at how tall buildings should be.”

On the wider question of liberalising building restrictions in the green belt, the deputy mayor said planning laws were ultimately set by the Government, adding: “It is no secret that the Labour party has been talking about what they are calling the ‘grey belt’.

“Should the Labour party win the next election, we would obviously have to understand what that would mean for London, but this is a national planning policy designation.”

The mayor was criticised by Lord Bailey for the slow rate of progress in London’s latest affordable housing programme, which has a minimum target of starting construction on 23,900 homes by March 2026.

“He has £4bn [of Government funding] for his affordable housing programme between 2021 and 2026,” said Lord Bailey.

“He’s halfway through, and he’s only built [started work on] 1,700 of those homes. He needs to get on that.”

The programme was meant to begin in 2021 – but City Hall said “no homes could start [construction] until the second half of last year” due to Government delays in signing off the funding for the programme, which took until July last year.

They said “delivery is now underway and will ramp up as in previous programmes”, with Mr Copley telling the LDRS he is “very confident” of hitting the target.

According to a survey by Savanta, 62 per cent of Londoners say the capital’s housing market does not work for people like them, compared with 22 per cent who say it does.

Some 50 per cent are supportive of the Centre for London’s proposals to build on parts of the green belt, while 19 per cent are opposed.

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