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27/08/2014

Boris and the NIMBYs: why London’s Mayor needs to sort out the capital’s green belt now

Boris Johnson by Andrew Parsons

Boris Johnson’s move back towards national politics puts him on both sides of a fence. As Mayor, he is charged with producing a London Plan which meets the housing needs of London’s growing population; as a national politician he will be more concerned to support NIMBYs.

Dr Malcolm HockadayWith a bunfight about to break out in London as the GLA seeks to defend its underprovision of housing in the face of growing discontent from surrounding local authorities, there’s to be a public inquiry in early September into whether London  can pass the buck to the surrounding South East – what used to be called overspill.

Even with house prices still rising and with an acknowledged and increasing shortage of housing in London, the GLA is wringing its hands and falling back on long-established but outdated green belt policy and thereby choking off house-building.  

Undeveloped rural land around the outer parts of Greater London is frequently green belt – long regarded as a no-go area for new house building.  

But they were defined decades ago in a period of stable population, with the aim being to maintain the status quo and protect openness, whatever the quality. The green belt is not a smooth, continuous swathe of greenness and enchantment.  

It is often piecemeal and its boundaries merely reflect the edges of the urban area at a snapshot in time some 50 years ago and are sometimes enclaves completely surrounded by development.

In the face of a likely 20 per cent increase in London’s population by 2031, such boundaries are no longer able to remain unchallenged.

The government’s National Planning Policy Framework – brought in with a fanfare in the early stage of the coalition government – rightly requires councils to plan for known needs. But the September public inquiry will be looking at the GLA intention to do the opposite and spread housing for Londoners across the South East.  

Only this February, the GLA wrote to councils outside London indicating the prospect of them now needing to accommodate London’s unmet needs. Those councils have unsurprisingly said that’s too little and too late in the process to change things in their areas as they have their own problems in meeting need, without adding to them with London overspill.

"London boroughs are keeping their heads down, producing plans which assume no real change to green belt boundaries and hoping the stalemate will lead to a quiet life"

They rightly point out that more of the housing demand could be met in Greater London by careful ‘picking off’ of the poorer areas of green belt to allow new development. London boroughs can do this when they review their local plans but all they are doing is tinkering with minor adjustments of earlier ‘nonsense’ boundaries. And there’s no reason why they could not at the same time push out the outer boundaries by an equivalent amount if they did a thoughtful and full review.

So London boroughs are keeping their heads down, producing plans which assume no real change to green belt boundaries and hoping the stalemate will lead to a quiet life.  

Councils around London face just the same pressures of their own – especially as the green belt stretches as far out as Tunbridge Wells, Southend, Milton Keynes and Haslemere. It reaches Boris’s old constituency at Henley and includes parts of his prospective constituency at Hillingdon. So they have no easy solutions themselves.  Voters there will certainly not want extra Londoners’ housing in their rural back yards.  So does the overspill go even further out to Bedford or Crawley, with the longer and more expensive journeys to work as a result?

Hardly sustainable and it should not. London boroughs should be made to actively review their green belt areas for the least sensitive parts close to the built up area, including spoiled sites, and to allocate new green belt if necessary in other parts.  This would allow more Londoners to be housed much nearer to their families and their jobs.  

After all, is Hillingdon’s green belt really more important than Henley’s green belt? But with votes at stake next year, how likely is it that Boris Johnson can be made to take the tougher choice now?

Dr Malcolm Hockaday is former chairman and now senior director at Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners

Image credit: Andrew Parsons

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