A Green Belt for London

Kaleidoscope City: Reflections on Planning and London, edited by Jonathan Manns, was published a couple of weeks ago.  The book is part of the Royal Town Planning Institute’s centenary celebrations, and can be downloaded here.  It is also available as an i-book or download for Kobo (or, if you must use Amazon, Kindle).


There are chapters by London historian Jerry White; architects Richard Rogers and Terry Farrell; Liz Peace of the British Property Federation; Peter Hall; and many others.  I intend to write on some of these in a future blog.  An abridged version of my essay on the Green Belt (with thanks to CPRE’s Oliver Hilliam) is here.  It tries to make the case for the Green Belt in terms of its contribution to London’s vibrancy, as much as its role in protecting the countryside. 



People often ask why CPRE is based in London.  The main answer, of course, is that power is concentrated (over-concentrated) in London and we exist to influence those in power.  But it is also the case that we protect the countryside for everyone, not just those who live in it.  Londoners need the countryside as much as anyone, and Londoners were instrumental in founding CPRE in 1926.  As the historian Howard Newby has written, the inter-war preservation movement was ‘a strange amalgam of patrician landowners… and socially-concerned Fabians (Hampstead dwellers, but keen hikers on the Downs) who believed in the pursuit of social justice through national planning’.


They set out to create a planning system that would ensure a clear distinction between town and country.  And for all our worries about countryside loss and degradation, they were phenomenally successful.  The English landscape was created by man and nature over thousands of years, but in the last hundred years we have had the capacity to destroy it, and it almost miraculous that we have not done so.


Nowhere is this achievement greater than in the containment of London, Cobbett’s ‘Great Wen’.  London’s growth – ‘the spreading of the hideous town’ – and fears that it would swallow up the countryside led to CPRE’s foundation.  But the immediate inspiration was Patrick Abercrombie’s 1926 manifesto, The Preservation of Rural England


Abercrombie proposed a combination of a Green Belt and satellite towns around its outer edge.  CPRE supported the Green Belt, but rightly or wrongly demurred from the recommendation of satellite towns.  Even though Abercrombie was its Chairman, CPRE’s evidence to the New Towns Committee in 1945 called for the revitalisation of war sites, existing urban areas, and the ‘many small market towns which are crying out for a new lease of life’, before contemplating any new settlements.  If there had to be new towns, CPRE wanted a ‘clean cut between Town and Country’, reflecting its support for the other element of Abercrombie’s plans for the growth of London, the Green Belt.


Celebrated for its role in protecting the countryside, the Green Belt has also played an essential role in London’s success, ensuring that development is concentrated in the city, rather than sprawling out into the countryside.  There is still plenty of scope for development, and plenty of need for it in run-down areas of the capital.  Research for CPRE, based on government figures, shows that there is scope for building some 400,000 new homes on previously developed land, and the stock of brownfield land grows all the time.  


Of course, delivering more medium to high density development within the capital is not without problems.  Care must be taken to avoid losing public green spaces, and efforts made to create new ones: housing is not the only use for derelict land.   ‘Garden grabbing’ is obviously a bad thing, though ‘planned densification’ of struggling suburbs may be a good thing.  The quality of developments must be improved: there have been some wonderful developments in London in recent years, but also many that are mediocre or worse.  There is also a need to continue to invest in public transport.  All this is possible in a wealthy city with its own government.


As for the Green Belt, we must do more to realise its value.  The Green Belt exists primarily to prevent sprawl, but it can do more than that.  It will be easier to defend if people also value it for nature, recreation and food-production.   It is easy to talk about the Green Belt as the ‘lungs of London’, but much of it is remarkably empty of people and wildlife, while London’s parks are full of both.  We therefore need to green the Green Belt and get more people enjoying it. Otherwise, the itch to develop this wasteland or that bit of monocultural farmland will be irresistible.  


The Thames Chase Community Forest, with over a million trees and miles of woodland trails stands on land saved from development by a CPRE campaign in the 1980s.  This bloody-minded defence of a relatively unattractive and inaccessible bit of Green Belt land prevented a new settlement of around 5,000 houses joining up Upminster and Basildon.  Houses are good, but anyone visiting that community forest today will recognise that something more precious than a planning designation was saved when Nicholas Ridley (an unlikely green hero) rejected the application for a new settlement at Tillingham Hall.  The ‘Big Green Destinations’ project is now creating direct cycle and walking routes from the edge of east London to the Thames Chase.  


Rainham Marshes is another area that has undergone a transformation.  An industrial site which has been off-limits to Londoners for 100 years, it is now an RSPB nature reserve.  Ten kilometres of paths and cycleways have been created, together with community education facilities.  We need this kind of investment all around the Green Belt to ensure that it is better used.


With its opponents often keen to focus on the shabbier parts of the Metropolitan Green Belt, its beauty has been seriously overlooked.  Over a quarter of it falls within Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and it contains more than twice the national average proportion of broadleaf and mixed woodland.  One of its wonders is Darwin’s ‘landscape laboratory’ around Downe, near Orpington.  Londoners can and do enjoy landscapes studied by Darwin 150 years ago just minutes from the southern edge of the city.


Access is also improving, with 10,000 km of public footpaths and trails, 15,000ha of open access land, a tenth of England’s registered Historic Parks and Gardens, and 6,475ha of Country Parks.  The London Loop path provides a long-distance walking route linking areas of the Green Belt to communities on the edge of the city through public transport and existing rights of way networks.


And yet, we still need to do far more to achieve Abercrombie’s vision of a co-ordinated network of urban green spaces to ‘allow the town dweller to get from doorstep to open country through an easy flow of open space from garden to park, from park to parkway, from parkway to green wedge and from green wedge to Green Belt’.  CPRE’s Vision for the Countryside in 2026 echoes this ambition, anticipating that in 2026 ‘Green Belt land is more attractive and more accessible, providing an invaluable breathing space for town and city dwellers’.  We have some way to go before this vision is achieved.


It is, of course, becoming harder and harder to defend the countryside around London.  In part that is because land use planning, with its curtailing of private property rights, is a survivor from a more radical and more statist age, one less in thrall to free market ideology.  Policy Exchange, currently the country’s most influential think tank, for example, finds it hard to talk about the planning system without using the prefix ‘Soviet’.  


However, even without the ideological objections to planning, containing London and ensuring that it continues to be surrounded by countryside is a hard trick to pull off year after year because the population is growing in wealth and aspiration, as well in numbers, and because London and the wider south east drive the UK economy.


To posit a choice between a beautiful and productive countryside on the one hand and an economically dynamic London on the other is nonetheless to misunderstand what makes London so dynamic.  Stopping London from sprawling into the Green Belt does not damage London, it makes it.  If we give up the Metropolitan Green Belt, we are not only giving up on the countryside, we are endangering the very formula that has made London such a successful world city, and such an exciting place to live; an exciting place with plenty of space for ‘getting away from it all’ on the doorstep. 

1 Response to “A Green Belt for London”

  1. 1 andrew needham February 19, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    Many appraisals of Green Belt have been done throughout England – usually by consultants. These consider the five purposes of the GB – and review them on the basis that some parts are ‘greener’ than others. Different methodologies have been used for these appraisals. It would be interesting to compare these – taking account of the pros and cons.

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