Protecting the Green Belt Won’t Solve the Housing Crisis, Sadiq

On Friday, the office of the Mayor of London published and circulated its second press release since Sadiq Khan defeated Zac Goldsmith to replace Boris Johnson as the capital’s most powerful politician. In it, the new Mayor used the occasion of ‘London Tree Week’ - the city’s annual celebration of its ‘beautiful green spaces’ - to state that he would prioritise the protection of London’s Green Belt over the realisation of any planning proposal:

'It is vitally important that we protect our city’s green spaces and that must include opposing building on the Green Belt. I’ve now met with my team of planners to make absolutely clear that this must stay at the forefront of planning decisions. Ensuring everyone in our city, especially young people, has access to green spaces… is vitally important.'

The ‘vital importance’ that Khan places on retaining the Green Belt is problematic for three reasons. Firstly, he misrepresents the Green Belt as ‘green space’, perpetuating a socially damaging myth about one of modern Britain’s great misnomers. Secondly, by pledging to protect the few green spaces that do exist within the boundaries of the Green Belt, he defends privately owned land to which very few people - not ‘everyone,’ as he would like - has access. Thirdly, by prioritising the protection of the Green Belt in planning decisions, Khan has placed himself in a major policy double bind: protecting the Green Belt is a key obstacle to solving the city’s housing crisis, the policy pledge which secured him the Mayoralty on 5th May.

the Green Belt is a misnomer

Khan argues that protecting the Green Belt, which covers 22% of land in London, is essential to protecting the capital’s green spaces. However, his argument rests on a false assumption that the Green Belt is a halo of evergreen meadows.  In reality, the Green Belt is a misnomer: in both aesthetic and ecological senses of the word, it isn’t ‘green’. A small fraction (13%) of the capital’s Green Belt is land benefitting from an environmental designation - such as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or a Site of Special Scientific Interest - which means that its green credentials are unremarkable. Moreover, although the majority of the Green Belt (59%) is farmland, 37% of this is intensively cultivated, which makes it environmentally harmful - far from ‘green’. To compound the scale of misrepresentation, the remainder is made up of low quality developed land, including airfields, roads, old hospitals, houses and villages, which predate the creation of the Green Belt, via the Town and Country Planning Act, in 1947.

Although pretty, most lush parts of the Green Belt are positively harmful for the environment. Golf courses make up 7.1% of London’s Green Belt. While their fairways are green, methods deployed to maintain their verdure are not. Unesco World Water Development estimates that, every day, up to 2.3 million litres of water is required to maintain a single 18-hole golf course. Compared with industrial farming, the upkeep of golf courses also attracts the use of seven times the amount of environmentally harmful chemical treatment. As a result, US scientists have found that golf course managers suffer above-average rates of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Therefore, swathes of land within London’s Green Belt are neither attractive nor environmentally friendly. However, this misnomer gives rise to a pastoral myth that results in the unthinking protection of land that is both environmentally and socially harmful, as this article goes on to explain.

a very British form of discriminatory zoning

Although rarely bucolic or eco-friendly, a fraction of the Green Belt does contain ‘green spaces’. However, does ‘everyone’ in London - ‘especially young people,’ as Khan wishes - have access to this small proportion of the Green Belt? No. Only 13% of the Green Belt is publicly accessible. While 59% of the Green Belt is made up of non-accessible farmland, the golf courses which cover a further 2,500 hectares of it are private, which means that those who wish to gain access must meet stringent membership criteria and cough up membership fees, averaging between £900 and £1,200 per year. Moreover, after qualifying and paying for access, Londoners can only use this green space to play an unpopular sport which attracts only 1.4% of over 16s - a declining percentage - to play on a weekly basis. As Paul Cheshire, the LSE’s Professor Emeritus of Economic Geography, puts it, ‘What Green Belts really seem to be is a very British form of discriminatory zoning, keeping the urban unwashed out of the home counties’.  Neither green nor accessible, will protecting the Green Belt help Khan to realise any of his other aims as Mayor?

Khan has placed himself in a major policy double bind

No. In fact, by prioritising the protection of the Green Belt in planning decisions, Khan has placed himself in a major policy double bind.  Preserving the Green Belt will not only perpetuate a harmful misnomer and exacerbate spatial inequality, it will also undermine Khan’s ability to fulfil his main policy pledge: solving London’s housing crisis.  Khan called the Mayoral election ‘a referendum on housing’ and pledged to build 80,000 new homes per year if elected. This policy priority won him the election, as it reflected the primacy of the housing crisis in the minds of voters. A month before polling day, BBC London reported that housing was the most salient issue for the capital’s electorate, with 56% of respondents naming it as the key policy area in the run up to the election - 18 percentage points ahead of the runner-up, immigration.

Solving London’s housing crisis is more pressing than ever. Despite the capital needing a minimum of 49,000 houses a year to keep up with demand, only 18,700 were built in 2015. As a result, London house prices continue to grow. Last year, London house prices grew by 9.4% - more than anywhere else in the country. The result? In December, house prices averaged a record £536,000. The rental sector is in a similar state. In the year to September 2015, the average London rent rose by 4.1%, which is more than any other area in the UK.

As Khan recognises, this crisis affects young people most.  Nationally, the combination of diminishing housing supply and increasing prices and rents means that, in 2014, a quarter of 20 to 34 year-olds lived with their parents - a 25% rise since 1996. In this regard, the housing crisis also intersects with the mental health crisis, denting the development and self-confidence of young people. The Institute for Public Policy Research has found that a quarter of young people believed that living with their parents hindered their life goals; almost half felt that it had damaged relationships; and a fifth had delayed starting a family because they could not find a home to call their own.

Contrary to Khan’s commitment to protecting the Green Belt, the most effective way of solving these problems is to build on it. Currently, at national and local levels, planning policy prioritises the development of areas which have previously been developed, known as brownfield land, outside of Green Belts. However, according to the Housing and Communities Agency, brownfield land constitutes just 60,000 hectares of England’s landmass; if developed, it would only produce 2 million homes nationally.

By contrast, by building on just 19,000 hectares of environmentally insignificant parts of London’s 516,000 hectare Green Belt (almost 9 times the amount of brownfield land in the whole of England!), the capital’s housing needs would not just be met, but exceeded - and all within a 10-minute walk (or, 800 metres) of a train station. Instead of pandering to affluent, second home-owning Londoners’ irrational fetishisation of the Green Belt, the capital’s new Mayor needs to stick to his priorities. By demystifying a socially damaging misnomer and building on the unremarkable land that it protects, Khan can solve the London housing crisis.

 Louis Harris-White

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