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Time to re-evaluate Green Belt to help solve London’s housing crisis

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;
  • 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.


What is the Green Belt?

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 with real public access.

Key statistics* from the analysis of London’s Green Belt include:

  • 76% of London’s Green Belt is used for agriculture and other purposes such as golf courses, utilities, historic hospitals, etc;
  • 26% of London’s Green Belt is made up of environmentally protected land, parks, and public access land;
  • 2% of London’s Green Belt is built on;

Wider analysis of the capital’s land usage reveals:

  • 27.6% of London is covered by buildings, roads, paths, and railways;
  • 22% of all the land within London’s boundary is Green Belt;
  • 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%);

“Brownfield First”

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.  A re-evaluation of the Green Belt is also required to help solve London’s housing crisis.

The alternative, it says, is house prices will continue to soar, cost pressures on London’s residents and employers will rise, and London’s global competitiveness will suffer.

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.”


* Some land use falls into more than one category which is why the total does not add up to 100%


Professor Paul Cheshire:

Paul Cheshire is a Professor of Economic Geography at LSE. Apart from his academic work he has spent time as an advisor and as a consultant for the European Commission, the World Bank, the OECD, the UN and other international organisations as well as the UK government, including being a member of the Expert Panel for the Barker Review of the Planning system, and an Academic Friend of the Eddington Transport Study. Until its abolition in 2010, he was a Board member of the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit and a member of two of the Department of Communities and Local Government’s Expert Panels. He is currently a member of the Department’s Planning Sounding Board and in 2013 was named one of the planning industry’s 100 most influential people.

Barney Stringer, Director, QUOD:

Quod is one of the leading Planning and Development Economics consultancies in the country, with experience of many of the biggest and most complex projects in London. Barney is a respected analyst of urban issues who has seen planning and policy from both sides over a twenty year career ranging from infrastructure to new communities, and major commercial developments.

London First:

London First is an independent business membership organisation whose mission is to make London the best city in the world in which to do business.  Its members include the capital’s leading employers in key sectors such as financial and business services, property, transport, ICT, education, creative industries, hospitality and retail.  Established in 1991, its work encompasses a wide range of issues under the umbrella of maintaining London’s competitiveness in an increasingly challenging environment.


London First is campaigning for a step change in house building in London, led by bold action and strong political leadership:

In 2014 London First outlined 12 solutions to London’s housing crisis in our report Home Truths

London First recently published research showing the damaging impact of London’s chronic housing shortage on working people in the city, as well as their employers. This research showed that more than half of workers (56%) have difficulties paying their rent or mortgage while three-quarters of businesses surveyed warned that the lack of new homes and rising housing costs are “a significant risk to the capital’s economic growth”.

London First is calling for government to:

  1. Give the Mayor greater power to set tougher requirements on the London boroughs: using the existing borough house building targets, the Mayor should be able to financially reward those that meet them and take over planning decision-making from those that fail.
  2. Give the Mayor the power to lead on identifying and disposing of strategic sites owned by the public sector that are surplus to requirements: the Greater London Authority has a good track record in bringing forward surplus land for new housing. It should be empowered to support all public sector landowners in London.
  3. Let London councils invest: by scrapping the arbitrary restrictions placed on local authorities’ Housing Revenue Accounts that stop London boroughs borrowing prudentially to fund new housing.

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