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Let’s build on green belt to ease squeeze on commuters

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Commuters have been subjected to relentless parody over the years: just think of Reginald Perrin trundling into his mindless sales job at Sunshine Desserts in the 1970s sitcom. But as a commuter, you’re one of London’s near-million strong army which contributed about £59 billion to the capital’s economy in 2012, according to a Greater London Authority study of commuting and migration published last year. 

You make up a fifth of the capital’s workforce and, compared to the average London worker, you’re more likely to work in professional and managerial roles and well-paid sectors such as financial services, where — for all the stick that the bankers get — we’re a world leader.

The figures are stark: the Office for National Statistics says the average home in London cost £495,000 in the second quarter of the year, 83% higher than a decade earlier. But now the price pain is spreading outside the capital into the commuter-belt territory. For example, Nationwide’s regional data on affordability in the South-East, outer metropolitan areas and East Anglia — broadly corresponding to the ONS’s South-East and East regions — show the squeeze tightening. In the South-East, the affordability issue is the acutest as the average cost of a home has risen from 5.3 times average earnings to 6.6 over the past decade. Real house prices — but not real incomes — have grown faster in the UK over the last 40 years than in any other developed country, according to the London School of Economics. That’s down to an inflexible planning system which makes the industry far less able to respond to demand, while a lack of building capacity since the crisis hasn’t helped matters. Within London, a new Land Commission is compiling a list of brownfield sites to build on by the end of the year but we need to think more radically. In the capital, we need to build up in the parts of London that are underdeveloped At 2000 square miles, London’s green belt is three times the size of the city. With the capital’s population bigger than it’s ever been, we don’t need it all. Then we might shorten the journey of that army of Reggie Perrins London relies on.

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