The coolest thing about being a monarch is that your subjects name all their big shiny new construction projects after you. So, when London’s new Crossrail opens for service in a few years, it will be branded the Elizabeth Line after our long-reigning Queen Elizabeth II.
A second Crossrail line is currently being planned to succeed the first. That’ll take a while to build but it means that, when the Queen’s time is up and the crown passes to her son, there could be another line under construction just waiting to be branded Charles.
It’s not only the fact that London’s transport system is full-to-bursting that justifies these new underground railway lines. London has the least affordable housing in the world: new homes are urgently needed to ease the pressure on the capital’s painfully high rents and house prices.
And so, Crossrail 2’s £30bn price tag is being justified by its ability to unlock 200,000 new homes, putting a helpful dent in the housing shortage. The increase in land values that’ll come from granting planning permission for these new homes should also mean more revenue to help fund the line: that’ll help get the project approved by those all-important Treasury officials.
This all sounds promising, but can a few miles of new railway really deliver all these lovely new homes? That’s a question that Crossrail 2’s independent Growth Commission has tried to figure out in a new report. It found that, yes, it is possible – but the only way to get to 200,000 homes is by looking at green belt land at sites near the stations served by a new Crossrail 2. Despite its name, the green belt often isn’t very green, so the report recommends a review of low environmental quality green belt land on both sides of London’s official border.
The Growth Commission are far from the only ones calling for a good hard look at the green belt, which the Adam Smith Institute has labelled a green noose, due to the way it places a choking pressure on a fast-growing city. As another detailed new report from the London School of Economics points out:
“We have reached a point where we cannot keep on disregarding the Green Belt as an option for well thought out development. Brownfield sites simply cannot supply enough land to meet projected housing needs in London and the Wider South East.”
It is now becoming impossible to ignore the overwhelming evidence that the green belt has become a major factor in London’s growing housing shortage.
All the same, you can’t suggest building homes on the green belt without causing a bit of a fuss, and the Campaign to Protect Rural England is not best pleased with any suggestion that we change what is currently designated green belt. CPRE’s recent headline-grabbing press release found that the biggest new “threat” to the green belt over the last 12 months had been the proposal to build 20,000 homes on land released from the green belt that is due to be served by Crossrail 2.
Without those new homes, a huge hole is blown in the case for Crossrail 2. It will be harder to raise the money to get it built, and it won’t be fully delivering on the line’s potential to ease the housing crisis. There is a danger that no green belt review means no Crossrail 2.
And guess who the patron of CPRE is? None other than Queen Elizabeth II. So, if the Queen’s favourite pressure group gets its way, there may well be no successor to the Elizabeth Line. Now that’s what I call a royal mess.
Duncan Stott is director of Priced Out, which campaigns for affordable house prices.