A house under construction. More of this, please. Photograph: Getty Images
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It's time to work out which green belt land we should build on

It's not all the North Downs, you know.

Let's get one thing straight: Britain is going to build on its green belts.

Over the next 15 years, government projections suggest, London and the surrounding counties need to build around 1.8 million extra houses. Brownfield sites could hold perhaps 600,000 of them. And that, incidentally, is if we include flood plains, contaminated land, bits of back garden, the lot.

So – let's just accept that the green belt is up for grabs and ask: which bits of it?

Barney Stringer, a director of regeneration specialist Quod, has decided to help us answer that question. He’s painstakingly mapped every site in London's Metropolitan Green belt that lies within a 10 minute walk of an existing station. He then excluded all areas designated as areas of outstanding natural beauty, ancient woodland, nature reserves, and so on.

What was left, he wrote on his blog this morning, was "nearly 20,000 hectares of accessible green belt in and around London". Around 2,850 of them are within Greater London. Here’s a map.

Now, Stringer himself is at pains to stress that not all of these sites should be developed: the land he’s identified includes a number of valuable local parks, not to mention Epsom Downs race course.

But it also includes golf courses, farmland, and ugly blank spaces that don't really serve any purpose at all. Look at the areas surrounding the Central Line loop, to the north east of London: there is no reason not to build there, except for the fact that we never have. "People struggling to afford adequate housing," Stringer writes, "might quite reasonably feel a sense of moral outrage at the sight of tubes and trains busy serving fields and golf courses".

Surrey, incidentally, has more land covered by golf courses than it does by housing.

Building next to stations will only get you so far, of course. Let's assume, to pluck a figure out of the air, that just a third of the land identified above is suitable for housing. At average outer London population densities of 3,900 people per square kilometre, it could provide homes for another 260,000 people.

That's a lot – but it's nowhere near enough. What’s more, just because an area has a tube station, that doesn't mean it has enough road capacity or schools. If we're really going to fix this mess, we also need to build on brownfield land, and employ 'intensification' strategies (that is, packing more people into our existing urban areas).

But, as Stringer asks in his blog:

Should accessible land (expensively served by subsidised public transport) be so carefully protected from providing people with much-needed homes? This isn’t a question that can be solved in the abstract... The truth is some land should be protected, some shouldn’t, and we ought to ask ourselves: are the boundaries we’ve drawn (often many decades ago), still exactly correct in every case?

It’s difficult to see how the answer to that question can be anything but ‘no’. Not all green belt land looks like the North Downs.

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We'll be launching its website soon - in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. He is on Twitter, almost continously, as @JonnElledge.

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era