Rapid urbanisation is a worldwide phenomenon, with uncontrolled urban sprawl being a major problem in many developing countries. In the UK where our planning system has encouraged the compact city model, concerns relate to the failure of new house building to keep up with demand and the forecast scale of future population increase. 

With the Mayor of London predicting the capital will need one million new homes in the next 22 years, it’s time to consider some radical growth options. Unfortunately, London and its wide hinterland beyond, lacks an organisational framework to debate these options.

To reflect future uncertainties, discussions should consider a range of scenarios to accommodate this growth. These discussions must also consider ways in which ‘green belt’ land can be managed. This is land which has a long established planning policy designation to check unrestricted urban sprawl. The aim of these discussions would be to make more productive use of this land for recreational access, local food production, climate change resilience and nature – because, in my view, releasing this land en masse for housing is far too simplistic a solution. 

The problem stems from the fact that, in the UK, we seem incapable of having a measured discussion about how and where to accommodate growth – except in a very localised context. In London, the current solution rests solely on densification and major re-development of opportunity areas. But for how much longer will it be possible to shoehorn all new development into the existing urban fabric without compromising housing choice, affordability and quality of life? And outside London, is there then a risk that Londoners in search of new family housing will outbid local house purchasers thereby adding to housing pressures there? 

The fundamental issue is that many economically buoyant cities in the UK are hemmed in by their own administrative boundaries. Informal cooperation is just about working in most city regions in the north of England, and in some smaller cities that have a collaborative culture. In some instances this has led to selective green belt releases, fully justified within a local authority’s strategic vision, as expressed in its Local Development Framework. Ironically, though, where the challenges are greatest (in the wider London hinterland), there is probably the least institutional capacity to deal with them. 

So the challenge then becomes how a strategic assessment of growth options might be organised. I think there are three possible models for bringing together interests across the London boundary. 

  1. A partial model approach, led by local authorities and/or Local Enterprise Partnerships, focussed along major transport corridors in and beyond London.

  2. A city region approach, led by the Mayor of London and surrounding local authority leaders with officer working groups.

  3. An inter-regional approach led by an expert commission using public appointment procedures and covering an area from the Midlands to the South Coast.

Although counter to the prevailing spirit of localism, I suspect the expert commission route might undertake the preparatory work most efficiently and allow a more objective assessment of the issues and options. Besides assimilating existing research findings, its evidence-gathering role could be done transparently through futures workshops, inviting written evidence, interactive debates, and local sittings. It would then be responsible for analysis and strategy recommendations back to democratically elected politicians.

It is instructive that a vision is currently emerging for Paris beyond the city's immediate confines. Here, the French president is supporting proposals for an ambitious investment in new orbital rail lines linked to housing schemes termed Le Nouveau Grand Paris.

Surely there are lessons here about how formulating forward-thinking strategies across multiple local authority boundaries can give long-term stability for both public and private sector investors.