It’s rare that you read something and you immediately realise this is a game changing moment in a long debate.
Absolutely what happened when I read the recent blog post on The London Society (TLS) website in relation to the London Green Belt. Mainly because TLS is not a housing developer or even a commercial organisation. No, they are a body set up in 1912 with the sole intention of trying to ensure London remains both beautiful and a superb place to live, work and visit.
The blog reminded us of what a belt is – namely something linear. The original ideas for a London Green Belt were for a 400 yard wide linear park running around the outer edge of London. “a healthful zone of pleasure, civic interest and enlightenment….a great communal estate secured for all time for the use and enjoyment of the people of London” A green accessible girdle available to both existing residents on inside of the belt and to the future residents to be housed yards beyond.
It then recounted the history of Metroland, the politicking and the post war planning to ensure the protection of open land came alongside major plans for new towns further out. The result being that we now don’t have a 600 yard wide accessible linear park, rather 20 – 30 miles of private farmland and golf courses. New family housing for Londoners therefore gets built over an hour from the City. The Green Belt has served many useful purposes but has also undoubtedly contributed significantly to the chronic housing shortage which Londoners now face.
No sane person wants to abandon Green Belt Policy and no housing professional wants to see more than 2, 3 or 5% of the Green Belt lost. By stopping the sprawl of London for the last 70 years it has been a fantastic success. But with the lack of housing now causing major social problems for Londoners, perhaps the time is now approaching where and how we need to have the mature discussion on where we can make minor changes in order to set new boundaries which we can endure for another 50 – 70 years?
Is it time to move away from the two notions that (a) all of the Green Belt is beautiful and (b) the loss of one square inch means the rest will be quickly concreted over?
Perhaps the reality is that parts of the Green Belt comprise degraded inaccessible land entirely suitable for development without any adverse effect on amenity? Perhaps, a Royal Commission after May 2015 could look at how we could set new fit-for-purpose Green Belt boundaries which can serve two or three generations to come.
Given the political sensitivity this is clearly the wrong time to be shouting from the roof tops, indeed only in the last few weeks we have seen two separate statements from the Government emphasising the commitment to protecting the Green Belt from new homes. But after the election, perhaps there are signs that a conversation is appropriate? David Lammy is standing for election as London Mayor in 2016 and is promoting the idea of a mature debate about how the Green Belt could alleviate the housing shortage without compromising its purpose. Perhaps this is a time for the housing sector to build up evidence ready to contribute to that debate?
Twas ever thus? In 1532 building was not allowed beyond the London City Walls and this was only repealed in 1666 when the Great Fire created a housing issue which policymakers felt they needed to respond to. Food for thought…..