London housing crisis: should we build on the green belt?

Some believe the growing capital will have to expand outwards. Others are not so sure

At the Guardian’s housing network blog, social housing consultant Colin Wiles writes:

Within the M25, there are 110,000 hectares of green belt land. Even if we built on a third of it, we could provide more than 1 million new and affordable homes. First-time buyers could have a chance to get on the housing ladder, we could restore some sort of sanity to London’s crazy housing market and, most importantly of all, we could at last house the poorest and most vulnerable Londoners, instead of sending them off to Stoke and other northern districts…

London has simply run out of space and its out-of-date green belt is the culprit. This is the real story behind the Newham’s social cleansing story, and unless City Hall is prepared to face up to the need for London to expand, I can guarantee that we will see more shock and horror stories highlighting London’s housing crisis over the coming months.

Is he right? The LSE’s Surbiton-dwelling Tim Leunig thinks along similar lines:

Green belts push up the value of housing land, which in turn means that those who are less well off end up very badly housed.

If social housing professionals are serious about improving housing for their clients, they need to be much more radical in speaking out about the underlying causes of housing poverty…

Nor is it particularly important whether these extra houses are social homes or market homes. The vast majority of the five million people on the waiting list are currently in private rented housing, perhaps sharing with friends or people they do not know that well, or they are living with parents.

If we build more market houses in sufficient quantities then house prices will fall, and private rents will fall with them. This, in and of itself, will help those who are badly housed. Those with too little space will be able to afford somewhere bigger, those who are sharing will more likely to be able to afford a place of their own.

Yeah, what’s a few fields and trees compared with that? But hang on: Andrew Lainton claims Wiles’s case doesn’t stack up in purely practical terms. He argues that there’s nothing like as much land available as Wiles claims and concludes:

It is clear then that even in a Green Belt free world over 90% of the overspill requirements of London would either have to be developed within London through developing at higher densities or beyond the M25 in Garden Cities or urban extensions….

Even under the most generous assumptions building London outwards is not the big solution to meeting London’s needs. Indeed, this was realised by London Transport after the war, when they calculated that if they extended the Northern Line to Elstree as planned, the Northern Line trains would be full before they reached Inner London, depriving Inner Londoners of the Tube.

What’s more, environmentalists, free-enterprise evangelists and even mainstream political parties tend to agree that car-dependent suburban sprawl is bad stuff both environmentally and economically. So it’s an interesting debate.

Given London’s expected population surge and the already high densities of much of inner London, it could be that rather than building new suburbs we need to turn our existing ones into Compact Cities if Greater London is to adapt and thrive. But would those suburbs agree? © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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