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Building all over the green belt is indefensible

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When so much of London lies empty, writes Paul Finch

I read with increasing disbelief the claims being made about the impossibility of housing London’s growing population within its own borders. Anyone flying over the capital will have noticed vast areas, mainly on the east side of town, which await building of any description. There are thousands of hectares of land which could be brought into residential use to the advantage of everyone, so why are we pretending otherwise?

The estimable Tony Travers and his London School of Economics researchers have interesting statistics on this point. Were available land to be built out to the densities currently prevailing in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, the capital could accommodate 18 million people. Were we to go the whole hog, and built out to Haussman densities (and we love old Paris, don’t we?), the figure rises to approaching 30 million.

You will notice that Kensington & Chelsea doesn’t have too many tall buildings but does have plenty of green space, so we are not talking about creating a new, unrecognisable London, but something familiar and desirable. Ben Derbyshire at HTA has been banging the drum in an intelligent way about the virtues of densifying thesuburbs, rather than resorting to point blocks or sprawling all over the home counties. More power to his elbow.

Unfortunately the debate about the housing shortage in London and the South-East has been hijacked by ideologues who need to distort the truth of why we are in our current condition in order to suggest solutions which have nothing to do with housing, but quite a lot to do with their world view. Hence the drivel about how land shortage or the planning system are to blame for all our current woes, rather than the self-evident fact that we stopped a serious public sector building programme in the early 1980s and now have an acute shortage because of inward migration.

I had to laugh at the Guardian’s shock, horror story last week about how Tesco is ‘sitting’ on sites that could house 15,000 people across the UK. They call that a story? Try checking out how much land any government department is sitting on, or any local authority. That is the really big scandal, and it is not going away. Supermarkets can play their part in alleviating housing shortages by building above stores (which Tesco is already doing) and above car parks. That is a bigger game to be won - by co-operation, not accusation.

As I have remarked in these pages before, it is extraordinary how we penalise the very people who are in the business of building homes with taxes, levies, ‘affordable’ home impositions and so on. It is a discouragement to small builders and others to enter the supply chain and ensures that the world of housebuilding remains a weird closed shop, playing by rules which actively encourage restriction of supply.

So we end up with a world in which ‘getting tough’ over mortgage lending is supposed to be a sound policy, even though it will actively discourage the housebuilding sector from getting on with it. As for the public sector, with some honourable exceptions it is in no position to provide the quantum necessary - unless politicians use sticks and carrots to unlock sites and start generating bond-style income underwritten by the rent rolls all authorities have partly at their disposal.

None of this militates against the provision of well-designed homes; it is about the context in which architects with an interest in housing find themselves. Squeaking about the green belt will do no real good. It is scratching at an itch, not dealing with the underlying condition.

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