One of the reasons it’s so difficult to solve the housing crisis is that Britain is, literally, full. Honestly: completely, utterly jam-packed. There just isn’t anywhere left here to put a single extra house.
After all, as anyone who has ever looked out of the window of a plane will know, there is literally not a single square inch of land left in the south of England that hasn’t been concreted over, given its own branch of Tesco Metro, and probably then handed to some immigrants on the orders of Brussels. Did you know that European legislation means it is now – and I am not making this up – literally illegal to keep a tree? True story. I blame the developers. Them and the council bureaucrats. And the expenses cheats. And Tony Blair. And Jeremy Corbyn, and lazy millennials, and Syrian refugees, and ASLEF, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Muslim Council of Great Britain, and Caitlin Moran, and-
Anyway, back in reality, this is bollocks, obviously. While there are many things that make it difficult for our dear leaders to solve the housing crisis – politics, economics, social factors – physics isn’t one of them. There is loads of spare land where we could put more homes, it’s simply that we’ve chosen not to.
And the reason why I know this is that our old mate from the University of Sheffield, Alasdair Rae, has updated his green belt atlas.
The new version maps the green belt across the 186 English local authorities which contain any. (There are only 326 of them, so that’s more than half the total.) It shows, for example, that there are three local authorities in which more than 90 per cent of land is green belt:
Those three all have something in common: the M25. To be more specific, all three are large blocks of land bordering Greater London, which contain a couple of commuter towns and a whole lot of nothing.
A map of local authorities around London, with the three offenders marked in green. Image: ONS; vandalism: CityMetric’s own.
A lot of that nothing is quite pretty – the ancient woodland, the North Downs and so forth. Nobody in their right mind would shrug their shoulders and say “concrete the lot”.
But I don’t believe for a moment that there is not a patch of land in any of them that wouldn’t be better employed as housing. Not least since Epping Forest contains seven tube stations. And do the residents of Sevenoaks and neighbouring Tonbridge & Malling (71 per cent green belt) really need all five of these golf courses within a few minutes drive of each other?
Click to expand, and find all five golf courses! Image: Google.
Neighbouring Brentwood meanwhile is getting two stops on Crossrail. In exchange, one might imagine, the local council would have been asked to contribute to solving London’s housing crisis. One would be wrong: its MP Erick Pickles was, when communities secretary, very concerned about the way development would encroach on precious chemically-coated fields.
Others of Rae’s maps show that two London boroughs are more than 50 per cent green belt:
That Cambridge is pretty tightly bounded by its existing green belt, si will struggle to grow without cooperating with its neighbour:
And that York has a lot of room to grow, if only anybody would let it:
There are a lot more maps – 17 more, if you want to be specific – on Alasdair’s website here. He’s also published a spreadsheet, showing his workings.
Anyway, long story short: England is not full. Lots of this green and pleasant land remains both green and pleasant. That’s worth defending. But surely we could have an honest conversation about how we do that without dooming an entire generation to over-priced and insecure housing forevermore.
Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.
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All green belt maps courtesy of Alsadair Rae.
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