As part of our Planning for 10 million series,Colin Wilson Strategic Planning Manager (Greater London Authority) and Ismail Mulla Strategic Planning and Infrastructure Manager (London Borough of Enfield) returned to the hardy perennial of London Society debate, whether the Green Belt should be sacrosanct, or whether land within it can be given over to other uses. Barry Coidan reports.
London’s Green Belt had its beginning in the 1880’s. Lord Meath, a major philanthropist and social reformer, believed that city growth was leading to national degeneration. He proposed the provision of numerous open spaces for recreation and exercise in over‐crowded working‐class areas. Meath founded the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, a major Victorian environmental organisation, and originated the idea of a green girdle or belt round London as a sanitary, health device. The London Society in 1913 was involved in the development of the idea – Green Lung for London as well as a policy of urban containment.
The Green Belt is 515,000 hectares, a quarter of which is within London’s outer boroughs. In the current London Plan the Mayor strongly supports the continued protection of London’s Green Belt along with that of the Metropolitan Open Land. So how do you provide housing, jobs etc for an ever increasing London population and yet retain this Green Belt? This is the conundrum Colin and Ismail sought to address in their talks.
With London’s population forecast to grow to around 10 million by 2030, the strains on the capital’s already stretched housing and transport network will increase. House building in the capital currently falls well below demand. The stress on the existing transport infrastructure is clear for all to see.
In his talk Colin looked specifically at the opportunities that arose with the development of the proposed Cross Rail 2, a north–south rail line connecting existing rail networks in Surrey and Hertfordshire. Creative use of existing Green Belt sites – some 35,280 hectares, with a mix of farming, shopping and factory sites – within the five boroughs bordering the proposed rail link would enhance housing and job provision.
In their 2016 Report “Crossrail 2: Delivering growth in London and South East England”, the Mayor of London’s Growth stated: “The Green Belt and areas designated as Metropolitan Open Land benefit from high levels of protection. But as pressure on housing mounts in London, questions need to be asked about how such land functions and whether there are opportunities for certain limited parcels of it to be released, in a way which maximises the opportunities to deliver sustainable housing and employment growth. Across the Crossrail 2 route, a number of areas of underdeveloped land will have significant improvements in its accessibility and could support new housing in keeping with the surrounding. If designed appropriately, such development could maintain and even improve access to green spaces and provide defendable long-term boundaries.”
Crossrail 2 would run through the Upper Lea Valley and its development would build on and enhance the existing Upper Lea Valley Opportunity Area Framework produced in 2013. That envisaged 20,100 new homes and 15,000 new jobs as well as numerous environment and recreational opportunities with improvements to the Victoria Line (with its link to the existing north–south rail line at Tottenham Hale) to drive this growth. Crossrail 2 would provide the opportunity to greatly improve this target to some 54,000 new homes.
The 5 boroughs within the Upper Lea Valley corridor each have their own pressures and priorities set out in their Local Plans. A coordinated strategic approach between these boroughs is essential to deliver the benefits from Crossrail 2.
There is a mismatch between where ideally new homes would need to be – close to the railway stations on the Crossrail 2 line – with its increased rail traffic volume – and current land use. Much of the land close to stations is designated as Strategic Industrial Land (SIL). Along the Crossrail 2 route such industrial uses include manufacturing, waste facilities, wholesale and logistics space, as well as workspace for SMEs. SIL is a specific policy designation to London, offered protection under the London Plan. Current trends show a continued gradual decline in demand for manufacturing: but an increased demand overall for commercial space such as logistics and last mile delivery which serve the London economy. In London, SIL is currently being released at rates much higher than the planned benchmark. SIL will still be needed in London in the future, there are, however, opportunities to consider how industrial land along the Crossrail 2 route could be better organised so that the accessibility benefits of the new railway are fully realised.
Of the 348 hectares, retail, sale and retail distribution accounted for some 101 hectacres. Other facilities on SIL include existing waste site locations. With many of these sites next to or near the stations that will be serviced by Crossrail 2 there’s an opportunity to transfer the industrial activity away from these sites freeing them up for homes conveniently placed near a main transport link. For example, Brimsdown Station which will be on Crossrail 2 is close to Green Belt and industrial sites. Ideally, new homes should be built on those sites.
Since it was initially designated in the mid 1950s, more than half a century ago, there have been significant changes to the Green Belt, not least the building of the motorway network and the construction of bypass roads within London. The M25 completed in the mid 1980s bisected land at Mollinson Avenue called Ramey Marsh West. Despite the name the site was in the 50s a sewage treatment works.
Not all Green Belt and Metropolitan Open Land is uninterrupted fields, forests and farm. In particular much of the “green” land bordering the Crossrail 2 line, like Ramey marsh is of poor quality, bisected by or close to busy roads. It would make no sense to build housing in an area of poor air quality, and little sense to invest in greening the site but it would make an excellent location for SIL, freeing up land at Brimsdown for housing and commercial uses that can co locate with housing. The public sector could capture the value uplift from the sites de-designation and invest it in improving the quality of and access to the Greenbelt elsewhere in the Lea Valley. Most of the Greenbelt in the Upper Lea Valley does its job. Ramey Marsh West represents the 3% of the total Greenbelt land area that no longer serves its purpose. If you look at Greenbelt around London you consistently arrive at about a 3% figure of land with similar characteristics to Ramey Marsh.
These sites are not difficult to identify. Around Brimsdown It would be feasible to move industrial units from sites near Crossrail stations to such places and build homes on the vacated industrial sites. This will allow up to 7,000 new homes to be built conveniently placed to a new major transport. Around London you could deliver a further 100,000 homes, significantly increase SIL supply, maximise the benefits of CR1 and add to the business case for funding CR2 and other transport projects. But this requires political will and leadership.
Finally it was important to maintain and develop the industrial base. Moving sites to the less than green “green Belt areas as well as planning for mixed residential and commercial developments on one site – for example in Hayes, Middlesex – is one option.
Crossrail 2 offers an opportunity to provide new homes and essential fast transport links at the same time maintaining a strong industrial base in the Upper Lea Valley corridor.
Our second speaker, Ismail Mulla, explained how the London Borough of Enfield was planning to take advantage of the opportunities and meet the challenges Crossrail 2 will present.
First, it was important that all the local authorities affected by Crossrail 2 were already talking about how to handle the major pitch points that would arise from the new homes and jobs that would be generated as a result of the building this new rail link. Crossrail 2 is a game changer – with huge transformational growth potential but also involving considerable planning tensions which need to be understood and addressed in a timely manner.
It goes without saying this is a long term programme – a period of 40 years. Geographically its effect will ripple out across South East England and in particular the Upper Lea Valley corridor which includes the eastern half of Enfield. The growth of Cambridge offers an insight into the impact of a rapid growth in businesses, employment and housing. Here supports services are struggling to meet the increased demand.
Over the next 10 years the forecast is for an additional 19,000 new homes being built in Enfield. How will this be delivered and how will they be serviced? The impact will affect the provisions of health care, power, transport, leisure and recreation, shopping etc. Existing industrial land can be used for housing, but in so doing it is important that the business base is not undermined – loss of business rate revenue a vital source of la income would have a serious impact on the Council’s ability to deliver services to the community. Moving industrial premises to new sites on the Upper Lea Valley corridor, and the planned increase in business activity, would lead to increased traffic through those sites and along the M25 bordering the borough and will have environmental and health implications.
Housing density and it quality varies considerably in the borough with wealthier parts in the west and north west and greater density and poorer standards in the east. Enfield’s ambition for growth and development has to ensure that the benefits are shared equably.
Crossrail 2 will be the catalyst for this growth. Enfield’s ambition is to provide 60,000 -75,000 new homes. As well as creating 40,000 new jobs over the long term and moving employment up the value chain away from current sector strengths of food and drink, logistics, construction and manufacturing.
Enfield seeks to bring about a transformational change through investment and regeneration. Crossrail 2 will be key to this with improved and phased deliver of infrastructure (4 tracking by 2024 as a Stage 1 to Crossrail 2 in 2033). Alongside this there will need to be strategic and major roads infrastructure, leading to high quality, high density jobs.
The long term forecast is for a population increase of the size of small city between 120,000 and 180,000. For this to begin to happen a number of growth catalysts need to be in place. 4 tracking the existing rail connections and Crossrail 2 being delivered on time. A comprehensive planning and design framework along with land assembly and value capture – Meridian Water at the south eastern edge of the borough with 10,000 new homes, new businesses and a new station planned is an example of Enfield’s comprehensive approach to development and regeneration.
There are a number of risks from the planned growth. The most deprived parts of the borough lie within the Upper Lea Valley corridor and the planned Crossrail route. Of course it is important that these areas should see the benefits of increased prosperity and job prospects. We should , however, be aware of a number of concerns. First, the new housing may not necessarily benefit those in existing poor accommodation: in comers taking the majority of the new dwelling. In the same way, encouraging high value business to replace existing ones might again exclude existing residents without out the necessary skill and training. Rather than improving their lot there is a risk of deterioration in their situation.
It cannot be stressed enough that growth without the accompanying infrastructure improvement can be counterproductive. Increasing congestion, resulting in efficiencies, health and environment degradation could stifle growth. Focusing on the Upper Lea Valley corridor also risks the middle of the borough – sandwiched between Suburban commuter London with it low density and Green Belt and the Urban Inner London with very high density and employment growth – being left behind. In planning for the future we need to ensure that substantial improvements in terms of housing and employment are spread to the Urban Outer London – Enfield Town is the case in point.
The resulting vision is of centres of growth, with mixed use multi-layered developments and high density developments strategically placed within the borough with improved existing transport routes serving both existing and enhanced population areas. There is also the opportunity to enhance the existing Green Belt by, for example, burying existing power lines thereby allowing access to Green Belt sites currently off limits.