Back in February, the Deep End featured Lord Heseltine’s argument that we need to do for the Thames Estuary what he did for the Docklands – i.e. act decisively to open up derelict land for regeneration.
Writing in the Spectator, Ed West makes a modest proposal of his own. To begin with, he deals with the claim that Britain has plenty of green space – and that if we forced more development through the planning system we’d barely notice the difference:
“…it’s best to ignore overall population density when talking about Britain. Most migrants are moving into just three regions, London, the South East and East of England, which between them (according to the latest statistics) contain 22,655, 656 people living in just 39,787 square kilometres, a population density of 569/square kilometre. Taking aside countries with a population below one million, that would put ‘Greater Greater London’ in 7th place worldwide, between Mauritius and South Korea, and way ahead in Europe.”
So, in the bit of England where most of the development needs to take place, things are already pretty squeezed by European standards.
Those who believe that the green belt is root of all evil have a counter-argument – which that, even with this population density, only a small fraction of the total surface area of the South East has been built on – and that, surely, we can spare some more:
The counter-counter-argument is that you don’t need to pave over every last blade of grass to create an urban environment. If you look at the land use stats for the Greater London area, roughly 15 per cent is covered with buildings and another 15 per cent or thereabouts with roads, railways, pavements etc. That leaves well over 60 per cent for gardens, open green space and open water (plus some loose change for ‘other’ uses). It just goes to show that development can urbanise a much greater area than that directly covered by concrete and tarmac.
It also goes to show that despite being a large and important city, London is not an especially dense one:
“London isn’t really that urban, as these graphs of density show… in reality it’s a collection of suburbs spread over quite a large area.”
It is on this basis that Ed West makes his provocative suggestion:
“With Britain’s population set to expand by 10 million in the next 25 years, and most of the demand being for housing being in the south-east, I’d like to suggest a truly radical proposal: that we could and should satisfy all (or most of) our housing needs by building entirely in London…
“If London took on the housing density of even Paris it could easily expand to accommodate 10, 12 or even 15 million people.”
How feasible is any of this? West rightly points out that “there are large parts of the city that have both poor quality and low density housing” – which could be greatly improved if rebuilt according to high quality, high density designs (as exemplified by sought-after areas like Kensington).
However, he’s also right to point out that it would take a latter-day Baron Haussman to a make a reality of a such a vision.
Because they can’t conceive of a government with this scale of ambition, many of those who argue for more housebuilding reject the more imaginative proposals for bringing it about. Whether it’s densifying London, regenerating the Thames Estuary, building new garden cities or realising the full potential of our northern cities, it’s all too difficult, they say. Instead, they just want us to get rid of the green belt and let London spread out like a freshly-laid cow pat.
This conveniently overlooks a whole host of practical difficulties that are just as tricky as those attending the unconventional proposals. For instance, if one were to have millions of extra people living within the boundaries of the current green belt, how would we provide the extra transport capacity to get the subset of commuters in and out of London every day?
Perhaps, instead of making people live around our cities, would could make room for people within them – which, after all, is what they’re for.