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Building on Green Belt will not solve London’s housing crisis

Alice Roberts
By Alice Roberts
17th June 2023

CPRE London supports house building. We need new homes. But just building new homes will not solve the housing crisis. And building in the Green Belt is the worst possible option for London: it means losing our countryside and green spaces; creating a high-carbon, car-dependent, unhealthy city; it means inner-city regeneration opportunities are missed; and we fail to tackle the housing crisis.

Read on or download our presentation Why building on London Green Belt won’t solve the housing crisis June 2023.

Green Belt is land around cities which is protected from development in order to halt urban sprawl. It’s very effective in doing that. To give some context to the scale of the threat, in 1940, the greater urban areas of London and Los Angeles were similar. Since then, without any Green Belt protection, Los Angeles has sprawled to the extent that it now covers an area that would stretch from Cambridge to Brighton if it was overlaid on the UK. London’s Green Belt has been hugely effectively in preserving our countryside and, more generally, promoting what we would call ‘sustainable patterns of development’ where people live near to jobs and amenities; where we can rely on public transport; and where there is a strong incentive to regenerate areas within the city rather than build out into the countryside.

In recent years, however, developers have persuaded many people that simply building more homes is the only way to solve the housing crisis, saying also that there isn’t enough space for these new homes within cities so the only answer is to build on Green Belt. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here are: (A) 10 reasons we shouldn’t build on London’s Green Belt; and (B) some policies we suggest we should be thinking about if we actually want to tackle the housing crisis.

(A) 10 reasons we shouldn’t build on London’s Green Belt

  1. We don’t need to build on Green Belt – our research shows half a million homes already have planning permission but aren’t being built. The LGA has said for years – councils are delivering the planning permissions we need – why have we conveniently forgotten this?
  2. Added to that – plenty of space has already been allocated for development – local authorities are also delivering sites – allocating them in their Local Plans – many more than can possibly ever be built out in the next twenty years. And let us not forget that urban land is constantly recycled: brownfield is not finite. Land supply is not the problem. CPRE research shows there’s space for at least 1.2 million homes on previously developed land and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
  3. Building on Green Belt won’t lead to more housing – simply allocating land does not translate into more houses being built (it just means developers have a choice of sites).
  4. Building on Green Belt won’t speed up house building – the speed at which the market delivers is related to what the market thinks it can sell in any one year – as well as constraints like lack of labour and materials and financing.
  5. Building on Green Belt won’t deliver affordable housing – Green Belt developments are rarely affordable: they deliver expensive ‘executive homes’ in unsustainable locations, marketed for people on high incomes who are able to afford cars – usually more than one.
  6. Building on Green Belt won’t bring house prices down – it’s frequently argued that the only way to bring down house prices it to increase supply.. but – wherever you put new housing, on the Green Belt or not – this doesn’t work – housing markets are more complex and often regulated for this reason.
  7. Building on Green Belt will lead to urban sprawl – high carbon development, car-dependent development – when what we really need is compact cities – where people can live near to amenities, where older people and people on low incomes are not isolated by lack of public transport, where teenagers and even younger children can get about independently, where we are not all choked by pollution, congestion and facing constant noise and road danger – these are all the consequences of urban sprawl
  8. Building on Green Belt will mean that urban regeneration opportunities are ignored – let’s not forget the fifth purpose of Green Belt policy is “to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.” Rather than develop on our greenfield land, regenerating pre-used land and buildings, often left neglected and decaying anyway, can instead breathe new life into our towns and cities, and provide places to call home near to where we live and work.
  9. Building on Green Belt will lead to loss of countryside – which many of us value – and which is now increasingly needed to plant forests, to tackle climate change, to grow food locally to cities, to help manage rainfall, to moderate the urban heat island effect, to provide habitat to address species decline – and on and on.
  10. … and even where Green Belt is unattractive ‘scrub land’ (an argument often used to say green belt should be developed), there is no reason it can’t be restored and made more useful and attractive (and in fact NPPF says: “Once Green Belts have been defined, local planning authorities should plan positively to enhance their beneficial use”)

The reality is, talking about building on Green Belt as a means to solving the housing crisis – however we define that – is a red herring. It’s a distraction. Worse, it drives speculation and landbanking which forces prices up further.

(B) some policies we suggest we should be thinking about if we actually want to tackle the housing crisis.

What should we really be doing?

  • Why are we still pushing for more and more land to be allocated for housebuilding and other development when there is more land already allocated than we can possibly use in the next 20 years – or even longer? Two examples in two boroughs where widescale release of Green Belt is currently proposed: (1) In Hounslow, why do we need to release land for logistics for Heathrow when the airport is surrounded by huge areas of surface car park? (2) In Enfield, why do we need to build on historic Enfield Chase when there is the vast retail park on the A10 with its single-storey retail and enormous surface car parks?
  • Why do we keep expecting housing supply to manage house prices down? Increasing supply has never brought prices down: housing markets are much more complex. For one thing, availability and cost of credit are much more important.
  • Why are we not talking about how to ensure private rents are affordable; and social housing is actually available to people who need it?
  • Should we in fact start talking about ending Right to Buy in England, like they did in Scotland (2016) and Wales (2019)?
  • Should we introduce rent caps – which the current London Mayor has been calling for for years?
  • Should we stop fuelling house prices by subsidising house-buying with “help-to-buy” schemes?
  • Should councils have more financial freedoms and powers to build new homes?
  • Should we actually level up between the north and south of the country to take the heat out of house prices in the south?
  • Should we take action to bring empty homes into use?
  • Should we be discussing how to reform the current land value capture mechanisms (S106 and CIL) which are basically tinkering around the edges of what actually needs to be done to address the land value capture issue and stop the accruing of money at the land value level.

Probably some of these might actually help. But building on Green Belt will not.

In November 2022 Centre for London wrote about new data showing young families are being pushed further and further out of London, saying: “If we want to reverse this trend and make inner London a place where less affluent young families can live again, we will have to tackle our housing problem” and saying this will require:

  • “Ending Right-to-Buy in England. Over 300,000 council homes have been sold in London under Right-to-Buy, many of which are now rented out at extortionate rates on the private rental market.
  • A very large increase in the building of social housing in the inner city, which will require a step-change in funding from central Government.
  • An expansion in private homebuilding, made possible by rationalising the planning system to reduce uncertainty and promote the building of new, low-carbon homes, particularly surrounding public transport.”

Perhaps there is a move finally to discuss the ‘housing crisis’ in a more sophisticated way than simply to say it can be resolved solely by building new homes.

But sadly, in the meantime, we’re already losing Green Belt, we’re already losing countryside, we’re already creating urban sprawl, we’re already contributing to the climate crisis. London’s Green Belt is more under threat now than ever before. The idea that building on Green Belt will solve complex housing problems is pervasive. The well-resourced housebuilders have dominated the airwaves and created the narrative that build, build, build is the answer to all our problems. And that we have no space in our towns and cities so must build on green fields.

Recent governments have said they support Green Belt, that it is ‘sacrosanct’, that it is ‘safe under us’. But at the same time they support housing and planning policies which force its release. They turn a blind eye to the most extensive threats to London’s Green Belt ever seen.

Developers are getting what they want.. while Londoners continue to pay through the nose simply to have a roof over their heads. 


This blog us updated from an article originally published in January 2023