Time for Green Belt review?

London’s local authorities should begin a re-evaluation of their Green Belt to help solve the capital’s housing crisis, according to a new report.

‘The Green Belt: A Place for Londoners?’, by SERC at the London School of Economics, Quod planning consultancy, and business group London First, argues that the starting point for any Green Belt review in London should be to only consider areas that are close to existing or future transport nodes; are of poor environmental or civic value; and that could better serve London’s needs by supporting “sustainable, high-quality, well-designed residential development that incorporates truly accessible green space”.

The study also contains a new analysis of what land uses make up the Green Belt inside London’s boundary.

It shows that only a quarter of the land inside London’s Green Belt (within the area of the Greater London Authority) is environmentally designated land, parks, or land genuine accessible to the public.

It shows that 76% of London’s Green Belt is used for agriculture and other purposes such as golf courses, utilities, historic hospitals, and so on. It says that 26% of London’s Green Belt is made up of environmentally protected land, parks, and public access land. And it says that just 2% of London’s Green Belt is built on.

It also points out that just 27.6% of London is covered by buildings, roads, paths, and railways, while 22% of all the land within London’s boundary is Green Belt, and that the total volume of land classed as ‘green’ in London outstrips land that is built on by a ratio of more than 2:1 (64.9% vs 27.6%).

Other commentatrs have noted previously that most London Boroughs have similar numbers of Green Flag parks as Scotland.

The report concludes that with London needing to build at least double the rate of new homes to meet demand, action needs to be taken on multiple fronts.

This includes a policy of building new homes on ‘brownfield land first’, building at greater density, making better use of surplus public land, and enhancing the Mayor’s planning powers to get more houses built.

But, the report argues that it is unrealistic to assume that simply building on brownfield sites – which can be complex and costly – will provide sufficient land to meet London’s housing need. It argues that a re-evaluation of the Green Belt is also required to help solve London’s housing crisis.

The alternative, it says, is further significant increases in house prices, rising cost pressures on London’s residents and employers, and a consequent negative effect on London’s global competitiveness.

Paul Cheshire, Professor of Economic Geography at the London School of Economics, and co-author of the report, said: “People think of London as the epicentre of concrete in the UK, but even in the capital green land outstrips land that is built on by a factor of more than two-to-one.

“London has a huge and diverse range of parks, habitats and – even inside the GLA – lovely countryside. This should be firmly protected.

“But the truth is that Green Belt land covers a range of uses. There is beautiful countryside with public access but there is also a lot of intensive arable and semi-derelict land. Golf courses – just in the GLA – cover an area almost twice as big as the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Barney Stringer, Director, Quod, which carried out the analysis of the Green Belt, said: “This analysis shows that the Green Belt in London is a real mixture – from the beautiful and precious, to the frankly underused and inaccessible.

“London has grown by a million people in ten years, and without more homes it will get even less affordable, and overcrowding will get even worse. The housing shortage has a real human cost.

“We need to make the most of brownfield sites, but if we want to protect the quality of London for the growing number of people who live in London, then we can’t continue to rule out sensible reviews of the Green Belt boundaries.”

Baroness Jo Valentine, Chief Executive of London First, which commissioned and co-authored the report, said: “If London is going to solve its housing crisis we need action on multiple fronts, including building at greater density, developing brownfield land, and – yes – better use of the greenbelt.

“Building homes on brownfield land first is always the best option, but these sites are often very complicated, costly, and slow to bring forward.

“While London must continue to protect its valuable green spaces, the reality is the greenbelt is misunderstood.

“Parts of it are unloved and of no environmental or civic value, yet can be easily reached by public transport. These are the parts of the Green Belt that councils should be proactively looking at to accommodate more homes.”

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