For far too long there has been an assumption that green belt and Metropolitan Open Land are all beautiful landscape that it would be offensive to build on, writes Paul Finch
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A lively discussion at MIPIM UK last week concerned the availability of sites for additional housing in London, a hot topic which concerns not just the capital, but the ‘homes counties’ immediately next to it – indeed all towns and cities where required demand for dwellings is at odds with land supply.
London’s outer boroughs face particular problems as they try to deal with increasing mayoral demands for bigger housing pipelines, but cannot rely on their county neighbours to help them out – sometimes quite the opposite. Kingston appears to be biting the bullet, as a presentation by director of growth Nazeya Hussain was honest enough to acknowledge, by reviewing all green belt and ‘metropolitan open land’ (MOL) in the royal borough. Some of it, no doubt after public consultation and hand-wringing, might be better used for housing.
This is a refreshing attitude because for far too long there has been an assumption that green belt and MOL are all beautiful landscape, straight from Countryfile, and it would be offensive to think about building on any of it. In reality, there are plenty of sites that are inaccessible and far from green, the accidental leftovers of designations from yesteryear.
Outer boroughs can resist any proposal, whatever its quality, that involves an impact on allegedly green open space
My favourite example of the latter is the site used for decades as a surface car park next to Hungerford Bridge on the South Bank. In this case, happily, the site will now be used to extend Jubilee Gardens, the green project being funded via the residential development on the Shell Centre overlooking the site. This provides a clue to approaching these matters: it is not a question of de-designating MOL and green belt sites because they are a mess, but making better environments, including more housing, in the round.
Thinking about this sort of issue as a complex problem, rather than in the binary terms loved by single-issue fanatics, is difficult for even sophisticated politicians. Also at the MIPIM session, deputy London mayor Jules Pipe is a good example. He is well aware that it is inevitable that green belt and MOL sites will be up for review in the outer boroughs if housing targets are to be met within London’s boundaries. This is even more the case, given the requirements for affordable homes as well as huge increases in general supply. However, the mayor’s formal position is very straightforward: his London Plan (including his ‘Good Growth’ aspirations) will not accept any diminution of green belt or MOL land in borough plans, other than in the most exceptional circumstances. What this means is that any outer borough intent on keeping its ‘rural’ character will be able to resist any suggestion by any developer, whatever the quality of the proposal, that involves an impact on allegedly green open space.
Thus the campaigners for countryside protection from housing development find themselves with a dilemma: should they also argue for protection of open space within London’s borders, which will eventually lead to greater pressure to build outside them, or should they not? Squaring the circle of more development, but not to the detriment of the overall environment, was precisely what the Urbed consultancy addressed when it won the Wolfson Prize in 2014. Its methodology for extending existing historic towns into green belt, but without deleterious impact when considered in the round, was an example of the sophisticated thinking we surely need.
Mayor Sadiq Khan is pursuing a housing growth agenda which has increased in credibility given his funding commitments to local authorities (including paying for more architects), and the government’s lifting of borrowing caps for new council-procured homes. Even Westminster is positive about affordable homes these days.
Can’t we remove the mental cap we have imposed on ourselves in relation to sites?