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Of poems, plans and many things

14 January 2015

Richard Blyth

Betjeman’s poem about the suburban expansion of London before the War came back to me this morning when I heard of a proposal from the Adam Smith Institute to build on green belts, including the London one. It’s rather a snobby poem – which is the part of the point. Critics of green belts have suggested that they are a kind of selfish policy – keeping the great unwashed out of our green and pleasant acres. It is also, as you would expect with Betjeman, a poem about public transport. And this is the other point.

Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta's and Pardon's
Daintily alights Elaine;

Today’s proposal would mainly prefer to sweep away any role for society in deciding which direction cities should expand in, outside of particular character protections. But as a concession, it allows (in the short term only) that maybe we should just start by building on land within 10 mins walk of railway stations in the London area. This is well- intentioned (as was the original green belt idea) but it would need some serious calibrating with planned public transport capacity. The ASI mention stations on Crossrail in the Thames Valley. To my knowledge Crossrail’s capacity will be pretty much exhausted as soon as it opens. Where is there any more room for passengers from new developments in the countryside?

The other problem is that people don’t do what well-intentioned think tanks – or planners – tell them. The main method of travel to work in places for the residents of towns in the green belt round London is car[1]. This is despite a level of public transport provision which is envy of most of the rest of England. Use of cars was hugely helped by the completion of the M25 (especially building it with frequent junctions). So while a few high earning people will travel to Central London to work, most will not. Many will commute to other towns in the Green Belt. Some of these journeys are hard by train. Does the ASI set out how road capacity in the counties round London will be augmented to cope with one million more homes and thereby maybe two million more drivers? No.

By contrast, Greater Paris is going about providing for more homes in a much more thought-out manner. An orbital railway is being built round the city and at the stations on it the railway company is acquiring land compulsorily, putting in infrastructure and selling it on. This meets two essential criteria:

  • Providing additional  transport capacity
  • Making land available with infrastructure

By all means let’s have a debate about the future of Green Belts. And all credit to the ASI and others for raising the issue. But the debate has got to cover much more than green belt policy itself.

Richard Blyth is the Head of Policy and Research at the RTPI.

[1] Eg 60% of Watford – which is well connected - drives to work; only 16% uses train or tube