Is the green belt fit for the 21st Century?

I recently wrote a blog titled  “Make London bigger” which advocated changes to the green belt, to allow for more residential development. The piece received the following twitter comment: “how will we do that? Move the m25?” to which I replied “of course not, there’s 35,000 hectares of green belt within the boundaries of the m25, building on a small percentage of that will go a long way to solving London’s housing crisis”…

google maps

With that in mind, I was site visiting last week around Redbridge, North East London, driving from Chadwell Heath up to Hainault. To get there however you have to go through open fields, of not much real aesthetic value to be honest, as you can see above. This got me thinking; this has to be green belt, otherwise it would have been built upon. And as you can see from the Telegraph’s interactive map below, it certainly is.

green belt map#

Let’s zoom in a bit on this area to see what we find…. Ahhhh, not the hundreds of years old ancient woodland that Mr Ray Mears would have you believe, but in fact a quarry. A quarry on the green belt? You can’t build houses, but a quarry is fine!


In fact there have been many quarries across this site. According to Redbridge Council quarrying started in 1959, with 4 million tonnes of sand and gravel excavated since 1985. However just 100,000 tonnes remain under planning permission.

mineral extraction

According to Government guidance, minerals extraction on green belt land “need not be inappropriate development” because it is only a temporary activity. Am I missing something? The open fields, the woodland, the aesthetic value that gave the area its green belt designation in the first place has now been wiped away by mineral extraction? But aesthetic value however doesn’t come into it when assessing areas for their green belt worthiness, as many who would like to have us believe.

Let’s take a step back. The purpose of the green belt is to prevent urban sprawl. As can be seen on the map below, there is a green ring around most major urban conurbations to stop the uncontrolled spreading of cities into the countryside. Surely a notable aim when it was formed, not many can argue against it in principle, but is it fit for the 21st century? I argue that it is not.

green belt uk 1

Let’s go back to Hainault. Here you can below see that urban development is situated to the north, east, south and west, so how does this piece of land contribute to preventing the spread of London in to the countryside? It doesn’t. When people argue against the green belt, they are not asking for all of it to be extinguished, just parcels like this one in question for example. Some will argue it will set a precedent. That’s why a serious debate needs to be opened up so that a new green belt is formed; one that allows London to breathe a bit more.

In short London is overweight, and it’s only going to get fatter, but instead of a gastric band fitted, it needs an extra notch on its belt.

site area

Say the green belt designation here was revoked, how many houses (for Londoners, overseas investors wouldn’t be interested, you would hope), could this area realistically support? Well let’s take all of the area highlighted above. The western portion of the site is also supported by four Central line tube stations. Have a guess at how big this area is?

Would 12.22 sq km; 3,019 acres; or 1,222 hectares surprise you? It did me. This area is huge.

For comparison:

  • The City of London (the square mile) is 2.9 sq km.
  • The London Borough of Kensington & Chelsea is 12.13 sq km
  • Barking Riverside is 1.12 sq km (which has permission for nearly 11,000 new homes).

To summarise then, this area of green belt, with tube accessibility, good road access, which wouldn’t exacerbate urban sprawl, where open quarries have been in operation for the last 50 years (with diminishing stock) and with little aesthetic or recreational value, is over 10 times the size of Barking Riverside (hardly a dense development) which when complete will provide a home to between  25-30,000 people.

Don’t get your hopes up on any change to green belt policy any time soon though. Interestingly the Council was reviewing this area of green belt (see here) fairly recently (my understanding is that they also own large swathes of it too incidentally). A number of small sites were deemed suitable for residential development, in fact a small parcel in the far north west corner had plans for a potential 1,000 unit scheme. However the “green belt review” being conducted by the council was recently scrapped after a petition by locals included 1,400 signatures against the plans. You may think 1,400 signatures sounds a lot, but when you realise there’s 14,359 applicants on the waiting list for a council house just in Redbridge alone, and 2,400 homeless families living in temporary accommodation, costing the borough £26million every year, is 1,400 nimby signatures a lot?

As I previously said, there’s 35,000 hectares of green belt land within the M25. Would it be so bad to give back 1,222 hectares here and make a huge dent in London’s housing shortage. This debate should have been done 30-40 years ago. A generation of young people have been priced out of home ownership, let’s do the decent thing and make it up for the next generation.

About Paul Wellman

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3 Responses to Is the green belt fit for the 21st Century?

  1. John T Pounder 9 January, 2016 at 3:56 pm #

    I wrote today to The Evening Standard slightly criticizing their news item on Friday 8 Jan about Tom Papworth’s (Adam Smith Institute) publication of a paper regarding green belt development. The reason I wrote was because I had also suggested the Hainault area as suitable for development in my submission to The Wolfson Economics Prize as far back as February 2014. I have followed through his references and see that you also suggested this idea at about the same time. Some strange coincidence? This exact area was also illustrated in a public exhibition at The Building Centre of my submission in August 2015 to The New London Architecture competition for solutions to London’s housing crisis. I have been unaware of other like minded people or publications until now and apologise if I have been treading on toes. I presume that you and Tom were unaware of my writings.

    Regards from,

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    • Paul Wellman 11 January, 2016 at 9:53 am #

      Hi John,

      I am indeed unaware of your submission for the Wolfson Economics prize. Do you have a link? Would be interested to see it.

      I have written a few times on this area and its green belt. See here and here.

      Regards, Paul.

  2. John T Pounder 22 January, 2017 at 3:42 pm #

    Hi Paul,

    Only just read your response over a year later. The idea of using the land at Hainault was published by New London Architecture in October 2015 in an exhibition catalogue called NEW IDEAS FOR HOUSING p119 although unfortunately this particular site is not included. It was displayed at the exhibition.

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