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Should London keep on growing?

Should London keep on growing? Photo: © Paul Tridon

Boris Johnson’s London Plan calls for just over 1 million new homes in London up to 2036, or 49,000 per year. Since 2001, we’ve actually built at little more than half the rate this target requires: completed homes are at a rate of about 27,000 a year.

The level of demand has driven Paul Miner bloga number of recent calls for the Green Belt to be reviewed so that land can be released in it for housing.

Increasing the rate of building to that required by the London Plan, let alone the 62,000 a year suggested by some developers, is not currently feasible. We would need significant levels of public investment in both affordable / social housing, and in improved public transport – possibly Crossrail 3 and 4, let alone Crossrail 2. And in a red hot property market, in a city which has created nearly four times more jobs over the past 10 years than the nation’s next 60 largest cities combined, the money won’t go very far. 

London’s growth poses issues that need to be addressed on a national scale. There isn’t any clear agreement on the area over which we should plan for what might be termed ‘London’s’ needs. But it isn’t the only place where jobs can be created. The Centre for Cities found that Milton Keynes increased employment rates by 18% between 2004 and 2013, creating new jobs faster than any other town in the country. This trend was consistent with the decade before 2003 at least. Other high performers included Hastings, Nottingham and Portsmouth. The digital sector is seen as a key area in which England’s economy is expected to expand in the coming years, and it is often suggested that most of this growth is focused on London. This week, however, a new report by Tech City found evidence of new digital economy clusters across the country, with clusters appearing in places like Hull, Liverpool and the North East, and 74% of digital companies based outside London.

We could do a ‘national plan’ any number of ways – top down or bottom up; land use strategy or spatial framework. Indeed, it’s arguable that this process is already happening – witness the National Infrastructure Plan, and Strategic Economic Plans and their bids for funds, to which the Government responded with Growth Deals. There is some kind of national planning going on, but not in a transparent or accessible way.

In about 10 years’ time we may need some new or expanded communities about 40-50 miles from London, using brownfield land where possible, where plans for both rail connection and new employment are already advanced and locally supported. CPRE already supports development in places like Ashford (Kent), Bicester, and the former Alconbury airfield near Cambridge. These are the kinds of developments we should be looking at to both meet housing need and protect the Green Belt, currently under attack from several recent reports. 

Organisations such as the Adam Smith Institute have all significantly underestimated the value of Green Belt land to society in terms of, among other things, public access, tree cover, local nature reserves and water supply. Building housing on Green Belt land near train stations, as one of the recent reports suggests, would lead largely to low density sprawl, defeating the purposes of the policy. It would also lead to the loss of beautiful and accessible countryside. Green Belt policy prevents London -- and England’s other major and most historic cities -- from sprawling over an area inappropriate to our land mass.

Our nation’s land will become more precious in future, not less. We need to think more strategically about where we want to develop and the type of developments we need. We cannot go back to the car dependent sprawl of the 1930s: with proper planning we can meet our housing needs and protect our Green Belt land.

This is based on a talk titled ‘Green Belt and Growth’ that was originally given to the London Society on 5 February 2014.

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19 February 2015

We need to think more strategically about where we want to develop and the type of developments we need

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