Building on the green belt: Nicky Gavron no, David Lammy yes

A major divide has opened up in the London Labour establishment between Nicky Gavron (Labour Chair of the London Assembly Planning Committee) and David Lammy (first declared candidate for the London Mayoralty election in 2016).

Nicky Gavron’s view

Nicky Gavron submitted a letter to the Evening Standard which was published on 10th December under the heading “Should we build on the green belt?”.  Nicky Gavron says in the letter that she is in favour of building new houses in London (who is not?), but she believes there is enough brownfield land to accommodate the houses we need.  She says that 382,500 houses could be built on such land.  She also favours redeveloping 10% of ‘substandard’ semi-detached housing at twice its existing density, which could produce an extra 400,000 new houses – this sounds good, but what if the existing residents do not want to move?

As for building on the green belt, she says:

Our green belt is the envy of the world; it is a green lung, provides space for recreation and is a check against unsustainable urban sprawl.  Once it is paved over, it is gone for ever. 

David Lammy’s view

Meanwhile, David Lammy issued a report on London housing called ‘Crisis, what crisis? Facing up to the London Housing Emergency’ when he declared his candidacy for the London Mayoralty in August 2014.  That report recommends among other things that we should:

Establish a ‘Greenbelt Land Use Review Process’ to bring together local elected officials, the Mayor, local people and developers to determine where there are greenfield sites in Greater London that would best serve Londoners if they were developed for housing.

The urgent need for housebuilding on the green belt

I have been convinced for a long time that we must build houses on at least some green belt land in the outer areas of London if there is to be any chance of providing the housing that young people in London desperately need, at the same time bringing house prices down from their current stratospheric levels.  It would only be necessary to develop a small percentage of existing green belt land to meet the need, as many experts have shown (if anyone wants me to do a survey of the relevant literature to show this is the case, I am happy to do so).  I am also far from alone in this view and it does appear that more and more of our politicians agree this is necessary.

There is no substance in Nicky Gavron’s objections to building on the green belt

Nicky Gavron’s objections to building on green belt land seriously lack substance.

  • She says that our green belt is the envy of the world.  If it is, why have other world cities of similar size to London not imposed green belts that start within seven miles of their centres?
  • She also repeats the old saw that the green belt is “a green lung”.  What exactly does this mean?  It suggests that the green belt in some way wafts breathable air over the rest of the city.  I cannot believe that this is scientifically correct but in any event the use of a small percentage of the green belt for house building would not make a significant difference.  As it is, London is well supplied with parks and back gardens compared with other cities of its size.  Houses built on the green belt could in any event be laid out on ‘garden city’ principles to ensure that air quality is not compromised.
  • She says that the green belt provides space for recreation.  I agree there is some truth in this, with much of that space being used for golf courses.  LibDem Minister and MP Vince Cable famously said that more land in Surrey is used for golf courses than for housing.  How can such a use prevail over the need of so many young Londoners for affordable housing?  Also, many areas of green belt that I have visited in outer London – for example Barkingside, Dagenham East, Denham, Hadley Wood and Bexley – are not being used at all – they are simply grass covered empty spaces that are inaccessible to the public.
  • She says that the green belt is a “check against unsustainable urban sprawl”.  I agree that we must have some check against urban sprawl, as no-one wants to see strip roads lined with box stores and fast food restaurants stretching to infinity.  However, can this not be easily controlled by ensuring that any development in green belt areas is restricted to defined areas?
  • Finally, she says “Once it is paved over, it is gone for ever”.  This is not strictly correct as, if the UK’s population were to decline significantly in future, unneeded housing could be torn down and the land turned over to parks or agricultural use.  She is though right in saying that once land is built on for a particular purpose, it is difficult to change its use.  However, what she is implying here is that all of the green belt (and the rest of the south-east of the UK) will be ‘paved over’, if we permit building on even a small percentage of the green belt.  Why should this be the case?  It has been possible to sterilise the green belt for 50 years or more, so why should it not be possible for Parliament to restrict new building to a small percentage of the existing green belt while preserving the rest?  It is simply not necessary to pave over the entire south-east, so why do politicians keep saying that would happen if there is any relaxation of current green belt boundaries?

Like the statements we hear from many politicians these days, Nicky Gavron’s objections to building houses on the green belt ‘sound good’, but they have little or no substance when submitted to analysis.  They are a rallying call for those whose minds are firmly made up and will never change, but make no contribution to the debate over how to deal with what David Lammy rightly calls the ‘London Housing Emergency’.

Michael Ingle

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Categories: Housing, London, Welfare

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