The government is planning to relax building regulations for the green belt, reports the Telegraph. A consultation published on Monday proposes changes to national planning policy to help housebuilding.
What could this mean for London? We need a lot of new homes — two years ago, London Councils estimated we needed an extra 800,000 by 2021 — and there's some debate about whether or not we have enough brownfield (ie, previously built on) land to cope. Zac Goldsmith believes we do — but the problems are getting that land into the hands of people who can build and also cleaning it up. That can be expensive, which in turn pushes up the price of the houses.
This leaves the green belt. Contrary to popular belief, London's green belt isn't all beautiful meadows and virgin woodland. 37% of it is agricultural land. 7% is golf courses, for crying out loud. This is something that appears to have bypassed Sadiq Khan, whose office issued this statement earlier today:
Ministers are completely wrong to allow developers to pave over our precious green belt. There are no shortage of brownfield sites to build on in London, and the green belt protects our environment, creates biodiversity and stops urban sprawl. Giving blanket planning permission to build on the green belt will not lead to new affordable homes being built because it will just increase the value of the land — meaning windfalls for landowners and developers but no benefit for Londoners.
Sadly, someone in his office hasn't read the proposals, as they're about small-scale, community-led developments, or infilling parts of brownfield surrounded by the green belt.
What that statement shows is how divisive and kneejerk reactions can be to any suggestions about building on the green belt. The Adam Smith Institute believes that building on just the 3.7% of London's green belt that's within walking distance of a rail station could create 1m homes. And being near public transport counters one of the (more sensible, in our view) arguments against green belt development, which is that it produces isolated communities that are dependent on cars.
Wrong type of homes
The main thing that should make anyone who's concerned about the housing crisis pink with fury here isn't building on the green belt. It's the government's shift to put money into 'affordable' home ownership rather than expanding the below-market-rate rental sector (ie, council and housing association homes) or even doing something to control the insane rampages of the private rental sector.
These moves are to free up green belt land for 'starter homes' — which we've already established aren't terribly affordable for Londoners anyway. There's some dispute over whether government-backed ownership schemes, like Help to Buy, help fuel a house price bubble (and bubbles always burst eventually), but Shelter says that, actually, if we want to encourage home ownership, low cost renting is the way to go about it.
Meanwhile, housing associations are being forced to sell rented homes in an insane expansion of Right to Buy and some are even reducing the amount of rental homes they build in response; and the amount of government money going into low-cost rental homes is being reduced, at the expense of 'affordable' ownership. Comparatively, whether a bit of the green belt gets concreted over is a minor issue.