Imagine a race in which the finishing line moved further away, faster than you could run. Rigged against you, no matter how hard you tried, the finish line would always move faster. That’s the housing market in London and the South East for most young people, where the dream of homeownership remains just that, a fantasy.
In previous generations, hitting your 20s and 30s would mean lending serious consideration to purchasing your first home, but not anymore. Generation Rent, those under 40 wanting to buy but unable to either save for a deposit or purchase a home at an affordable price, have seen their wages increase by 52 per cent in the last 15 years but property prices have exploded by 132 per cent.
If Britain wishes to remain a “homeowning” democracy, we need to find a way of lowering the housing ladder so that Generation Rent can jump on. We need to build more homes.
In London this means reclassifying the Green Belt. While politically difficult, it is also inevitable. A city growing as quickly as London needs to rethink its spaces and how it uses them. Reclassifying the Green Belt doesn’t mean building on every piece of it, but being realistic about how it can be used to benefit all Londoners.
We need to deconstruct the “postcard picture myth” of verdant green fields and wild meadows open to all. Some of the Green Belt is beautiful and needs protection, but to claim all of it is would be a con. According to a 2015 London First report, only 22 per cent of Green Belt land in Greater London is classified as “public access” or has an environmental designation. The majority, 59 per cent, is agricultural.
The perversity of the land market in London means that restricting supply for housing has essentially subsidised other land uses. For example, 7.1 per cent of Greater London’s Green Belt is golf courses, nearly two and a half thousand hectares, which for reference is about double the size of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Calculations by Barney Stringer of development consultancy QUOD show that, of the 514,000 hectares of Green Belt in Greater London, 19,334 hectares are within a 10 minute walk of a train station. This makes the land prime for development and within easy access to some of the best paying jobs in Europe.
According to professor Paul Cheshire of the London School of Economics, this land would be enough to build nearly 1m new homes; all from reclassifying 3.7 per cent of London’s Green Belt. The truth is, even the most marginal amount of Green Belt reclassification would make a huge difference.
We can’t restrict this to the boundary of Greater London either. London’s Green Belt expanded to cover large swathes of the Home Counties during the 1950s and 1960s. One London council chief executive told me last week that “looking inside of London provides a short-term answer, but the only long-term solution is to work together across the capital and with counties and boroughs on Greater London’s borders.”
He’s correct. Over the next five years Tower Hamlets and Newham are projected to have the fastest growing populations in London and the country as a whole. Last year they built 310 homes between them. The capital and its surrounding areas need to work as one if we’re to meet demand for housing.
In 1944, Sir Leslie Patrick Abercrombie published his Greater London Plan. In it he laid out a vision for the redevelopment of the city after the Second World War that reflected London’s most pressing needs. We again need an Abercrombie type vision, but one which reflects London in 2016.
It is fundamentally unfair that growth in London and the wider South East continues to be regulated by a land use policy that was established when the capital was emerging from a world war and still an imperial city. We need an “Abercrombie 2.0”, a new masterplan for the release of land for housing across London and its neighbouring boroughs. If Theresa May wants a country that works for everyone, then Generation Rent would appreciate it if she could start with London’s Green Belt.