If you read the latest State of the Green Belt report from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), you might come away with the impression that Londons green belt is in mortal danger of being “concreted over”.
If only. Last year, just 3,387 homes were built on the green belt. As Robert Colvile of the Centre for Policy Studies points out, at that rate itd take 5,000 years to finish the job.
London has a housing affordability crisis. The average Londoner spends two fifths of their salary on rent. Since 2005, rents have shot up by 41 per cent while incomes have only gone up by 25 per cent. As a result, half as many under-35s own homes now as they did in 1990.
Rents have consistently outpaced earnings because green belts, protected views, and height limits have effectively made it illegal for supply to meet increased demand.
The answer is simple: to solve the housing crisis, we need to legalise housing.
And that means its time for the green belts defenders to face some home truths.
First, the idea that British land is at full capacity is demonstrably false. Only two members of the EU have less built environment per capita than the UK: the Netherlands (which is twice as dense), and Cyprus.
In England, 90 per cent of land remains undeveloped. Building on just 0.5 per cent would fulfil this decades housing needs.
Second, green belts are meant to prevent sprawl. They dont. We see leapfrog development in Dartford, Guildford, and High Wycombe because of bans on development in Havering, Harrow, and Bromley.
Third, when we think of the green belt, we typically think of rolling hills and lush forests. The reality is less green. Take the car wash near Tottenham Hale tube station – not a blade of grass in sight.
Far from being Londons lung, 35 per cent of Englands green belts are used for intensive farming, a major cause of air pollution.
No one is denying that green spaces are valuable. But theyre worth more when you can actually get to them. One analysis found that each hectare of city park is estimated to be of £54,000 benefit per year, compared to a mere £889 per hectare for green belt land on the fringe of an urban area.
One policy, initially suggested by the Adam Smith Institute and developed by Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh, would create a presumption in favour of development on green belt land within 15 minutes walking time from a train station which can get to Zone 1 within 45 minutes (essentially an hour from central London).
Exceptions would be included to protect Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
The plan – backed by academics, think tanks, housing associations, and politicians from across the spectrum – would allow for more than one million homes to be built. It would meet Londons housing needs for the next decade.
We should consider going even further by expanding it to 10 minutes cycling distance from a train station. New development could finance cycle lanes to encourage new residents to take advantage of bike-sharing apps. This green solution would free up enough land to meet Londons housing needs for the next decade twice over.
The Conservative MP Liz Truss has argued that the Tories face a simple choice: its a case of either building “on more greenfield sites… or losing the election and ending up with Jeremy Corbyn”.
Shes put herself on the right side of a new divide in politics: opportunity versus protection. By refusing to touch the green belt, successive governments have chosen to protect property values for homeowners over the opportunity for young people to live, work, and own in London. Without a more realistic approach, its not hard to see why millennials are tempted by the socialist fantasies offered by Labour.
Finally, the protectionist CPRE tries to argue that construction on the green belt wont bring rents down or help young people, as just 22 per cent of planned construction meets the governments definition of “affordable.” This is a distraction.
Insisting on arbitrary definitions of affordability is nothing more than an opportunity for nimbys to virtue-signal, using faux-progressivism to avoid any building work near their own homes.
In San Francisco, anti-development activists were able to kill a development by insisting on absurdly onerous affordability requirements. Activists carried signs saying “No more expensive market rate housing! 100 per cent affordable housing now!” They got half of what they asked for.
On the other side, building more homes is both a progressive and a pro-market cause. In California, a bill which would have allowed more residential development along major transport corridors, and cut San Francisco rents by an estimated 5.8 per cent, was backed by an unlikely coalition of tech leaders, socialists, neoliberal market urbanists, and environmental groups.
Britains politicians should learn from this. If they fail to show bravery and take on entrenched nimby opposition, they will find themselves on the wrong side of a similar coalition. And they will lose.