Thursday, 8 October 2015

Loosening the Girdle

The London green belt was originally envisaged in the late 19th century as an amenity for city-dwellers rather than a cordon sanitaire to protect the rural. Though the Ringstrasse of Vienna and the parkways of Washington are sometimes cited as inspirations, the "green girdle" proposed for London was to be placed much further out, beyond the working class districts, rather than between the elite-dominated centre and the peripheral industrial areas. The aim was to improve the health of the working classes, rather than isolate them, through access to fresh-air and exercise, and was given political impetus when recruitment during the Boer War revealed poor levels of fitness among the urban poor, prompting a Parliamentary Committee on Physical Deterioration in 1903. This reinforced existing concerns over national decline (arising from the advance of the USA and Germany) and would provide a background hum to the Liberal government's welfare reforms after 1906, including the Housing, Town Planning, &c. Act 1909, which banned "back-to-backs" and required local authorities to draw up town plans.

The green belt was a progressive cause, but one more influenced by the eugenic concerns of the Fabians (improve labour) than the bucolic socialism of William Morris (improve life). It also found common cause with conservatives worried more about "racial decay" than rural preservation. As a practical policy it went hand-in-hand with slum clearance and quality public housing, hence it was championed by the likes of Herbert Morrison's LCC in the interwar years, leading to the Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act 1938, which empowered local authorities to buy land to be kept free from development. This public health focus was reinforced in the 1940s by a renewed desire, occasioned by wartime rationing, to maintain agricultural land close to the city to provide fresh food. However, this also marks the transition in the concept of the green belt from an urban resource to a strategic resource in its own right. Green belts were formalised nationally in  the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which also provided the foundation for the modern system of planning controls.

From the 50s through the 70s, urban populations were partially decanted to new towns as the old city slums were cleared, with the green belt providing a way of ensuring that the likes of Harlow and Stevenage developed as distinct centres rather than just exurban sprawl in the US manner. It is during this postwar period that the idea of the green belt as a restraint, rather than an urban amenity, takes hold, both in the sense of containing the social ills of inner-cities (increasingly associated in the popular imagination with Commonwealth immigrants) and isolating the decanted working classes in the often under-equipped new towns. The implementation of green belts became government policy (i.e. a central push rather than a local authority pull) in 1955 under the Conservatives, marking the inflexion point in attitude. The era also saw a significant improvement in urban health, due to the clean air acts and the spread of indoor plumbing, while mechanisation reduced the population of farm-workers. These developments replaced the old social dichotomy of unhealthy city and healthy countryside, embodied in the pasty-faced street urchin and the ruddy-cheeked farmer's child, with an aesthetic distinction of the built environment: the glass and concrete city and the increasingly faux-rural exurbs.

In the 1980s, the value of the green belt as an urban "lung" continued to decline as deindustrialisation reduced pollution, while the growth of imported foodstuffs reduced the land's agricultural utility (if not its market value). As the health and recreational justifications of old lost their weight, the cause of environmental protection gained prominence, encouraging the idea that as the green belt was a good in itself it should be expanded where possible. In fact, much green belt land is of no more ecological value than an urban brownfield site (and sometimes less). The consequence is that the land designated as green belt has more than doubled in size since 1979 and now accounts for 13% of the total land in England. In contrast, only 10% of land is developed (which includes roads and urban green spaces), while national parks account for 9%. That the last 30 years have seen persistent political pressure to expand the green belt (and simultaneously improve transport links) indicates that its main purpose had become that of a low-density housing zone for wealthier urban workers and the site of a growing professional services economy.

The London green belt is now over 5,000 square kilometres in size, which means that it is three times as big as the urban area it surrounds. This is enough space to build as many homes as already exist in the entirety of the UK at current densities: around 27 million. 7% of the London green belt is made up of golf courses, which means that surrendering half of them would provide enough land for 1 million new homes. It is estimated that there is enough developable land within 1 mile of existing railway and Tube stations, and within 60 minutes journey time of Central London (a radius of 90km), to build 2.5 million new homes. 22% of the land within the GLA boundaries is green belt, which constitutes an area large enough to support 1.4 million additional homes. Having declined from 8.2 million to 6.6 million between 1951 and 1981, the population of the capital bounced back to 8.2 million in 2011 and is expected to exceed 9 million by the time of the next census in 2021.

The idea of the green belt as an "interzone" between city and country has long gone. Improvements in transport have pushed the commutable boundary much further afield (Crossrail is designed to serve the green belt as much as the metropolis). At the same time, improvements in communication have amplified the value of agglomeration in city centres, leading to the growth of global hubs, such as the City. The consequence in London is the emergence of concentric rings of wealth, the inner boroughs and the green belt, sandwiching a ring of outer boroughs with an increasingly low-paid "service" population. The Tory plan to extend right-to-buy to housing associations, and require further council sales to fund the promised discounts, will exacerbate this by reducing the remaining pockets of social housing in the inner boroughs. The inner city is increasingly the inner-outer city, to be found in Mitcham and Leyton rather than Brixton or Bethnal Green. Gradually, London is replicating the social geography seen in New York and Paris.

The historic irony is that a legacy of early nineteenth century pro-social reform and mid-century central planning became a key tool for the protection of class interests antagonistic to the poor and the state. This is nowhere more obvious than west of London, specifically the area bounded by Reading, Slough, Heathrow and Bracknell. One objection to the expansion of Heathrow Airport is that it would take a nibble out of the green belt. A more ambitious plan would see the entire area developed, centring on the corridor of the M4. Of course, this would mean development around Windsor and Eton, which appears to be a no-go for some strange reason (maybe something to do with Legoland). Compare and contrast with the long-standing government encouragement for development east of London, the so-called Thames Gateway, which covers an area of significantly greater ecological value along the banks of the Thames estuary.

The obvious conclusion is that not all parts of the green belt are equal, which appears to be the position of its modern defenders to judge by their willingness to countenance land-swaps. According to Simon Jenkins: "Those of minimal amenity value would be released in favour of belt extension elsewhere. It is stupid to guard a muddy suburban field while building over the flanks of the Pennines". Despite the reference to ancient limestone, this attitude clearly reflects on the social value of land as a commodity rather than the intrinsic value of the natural environment, hence the paradigm of trade and stock management. By "amenity" I suspect Jenkins means the outdoor pursuits of the middle-classes, though he probably has fell-walking and horse-riding in mind rather than paint-balling or golf, which is an echo of the "improving" visions of the Edwardians who rhapsodised about Sunday school trips to a bluebell wood.

Jenkins has long insisted that the UK's housing crisis is a problem of poor urban resource management, and thus implicitly of selfish townees. There is some truth in this, however it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the solution to an urban problem lies within the urban area, and to in turn assume that "urban" and "green belt" are mutually-exclusive. This is to continue the thinking of the late twentieth century and see the green belt as a check on the ill-discipline of the city. For example, under-occupancy is often discussed as a urban issue, in the context of the bedroom tax and foreign investors, but empty rooms are more common in owner-occupied properties in the green belt. The structural causes of the under-provision of housing are not limited to cities, let alone London: regressive property and inheritance taxation; high land prices and no penalties on under-use (which leads to land-banking); and a cartel of private builders with insufficient competition from local authorities.

The solution to the housing crisis, particularly in London, requires us to return to a view of the green belt as a resource for the city, not a restraint. This doesn't mean throwing up a couple of million homes willy-nilly around the M25, but expansion along the axial transport corridors that already exist to Reading, Crawley, Luton and Southend. This would be a return to the development pattern that predated the postwar green belt, with houses and light industry following first the railways and then the new arterial roads. The green belt also provides the opportunity to build a high-speed orbital rail line linking London's airports and reducing traffic through the city centre, but given the political trouble that relatively small-scale incursions into the green belt like Heathrow and HS2 have produced, the suspicion is that wholesale reform will continue to nestle in the long grass. That both leading candidates for the London mayoralty, Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith, are on record as considering the green belt "sacrosanct" is not encouraging. We're not protecting nature, we're merely privileging property.


  1. Herbie Causes Extinction8 October 2015 at 19:01

    Stellar article, just a few quibbles.

    “improvements in communication have amplified the value of agglomeration in city centres,”

    I would have thought the opposite.

    “The green belt also provides the opportunity to build a high-speed orbital rail line linking London's airports “

    I would have thought improvements in communication would make us question why rail and air travel is not going down!

    “The solution to the housing crisis, particularly in London, requires us to return to a view of the green belt as a resource”

    I don’t really agree with this. There is a lot that can be done before we reach this point, empty homes etc

    And no mention in the article of the most inefficient form of transport, the motor car. That seems like one hell of an omission to me.

    If you hadn’t been so quick to reach conclusions I would have given this 9 out of 10!

    Leave the conclusions for the detailed and well funded review!

    1. The point about agglomeration is superficially counter-intuitive - you would expect that email would reduce the need to co-locate - but the facts on the ground are clear. Instead of everybody working from home, we continue to huddle together in city centres and global-scale cities, like London, are expected to continue growing in size.

      One explanation is that people still like face-to-face meetings, however the bigger factor is scale, which is facilitated by communications. This creates larger commercial networks, which in turn generates greater turnover through established nodes. As the market expands, it attracts industry entrants (as well as support services) who want to be close to the action. This clustering effect, which is observed in many naturally-occurring scale-free networks, follows a power-law distribution. In other words, as the network grows in size it produces even greater growth at the key nodes.

      I didn't mention the car precisely because it is a wasteful means of transport: we need more railways. In terms of efficiency, the real issue with cars is not in city centres - where roads are busy (i.e. capacity is being maximised) - but in the exurban area. Much of the green belt is actually tarmac that serves relatively few people.

    2. Cars (or more precisely, private motor vehicles in general including the two-wheeled variety) may be "wasteful" when it comes to their consumption of space (both when moving and when parked), but they beat public transport hands down when it comes to liberating the masses from the tyranny of rent, as public transport is only efficient when a large number of people are moving along the same route at the same time. The alternative term "mass transit" popular in American English is instructive here.

      Doesn't concentrating employment in city centres (an objective often pursued by planners with the aim of making public transport more viable) cause far more losses to business (through higher location-based rents at the favoured locations) than are gained by the improved transportation efficiencies.

      And although this article is looking only at the London Green Belt, I'd argue that a global city like London (where the main income generators are finance and bureaucracy -- both of which use very little space -- and where there are lots of third-world immigrants to do the menial jobs who are used to living in disgusting overcrowded conditions) is less harmed by the Green Belt's inflating of land prices, than ordinary utilitarian industrial cities such as those in the North and Midlands.

  2. Herbie Casuses Extinction11 October 2015 at 12:09

    "The point about agglomeration is superficially counter-intuitive"

    It isn't really one thing or the other, it all depends on what drives the system. For example a system that is profit driven and hierarchical will have a different response to one which is use value driven and egalitarian.

    I accept ypour criticism of green belt, I am just thinking in terms of co-existence with nature and acknowledgment of it. Reduction of habitat, that sort of thing. I don't think humans should just talk about what nature can do for us without talking about our place in nature and our responsibility to it.

    There is always the danger that critics just end up within the the terms of reference dictated by the system logic.

    1. I'm not oblivious to our responsibilities for the environment, but I do take issue with the dichotomy of nature vs the man-made, which the green belt embodies, essentially because the "countryside" is a construct that privileges wealth.

      There are very few parts of this country that are truly "natural", in the sense of not having been formed by human activity. The shift from forests to pastures grazed by imported sheep was a far more profound ecological change than the subsequent building of houses on those pastures.

      The issue - as ever - is not what we must do (we must build more houses as the population grows) but how the costs and benefits of that action are distributed across different social groups, not just in the UK but globally (i.e. because of climate change). The green belt was initially democratic in intent but has since been turned to reactionary ends.

    2. Herbie Casuses Extinction11 October 2015 at 13:16

      "but I do take issue with the dichotomy of nature vs the man-made, which the green belt embodies, essentially because the "countryside" is a construct that privileges wealth."

      As long as we remember that wealth is also a construct!

      I also think the "the dichotomy of nature vs the man-made" is most manifest when people forget that humans are part of nature and their actions impact upon it! It is when humans treat nature with no sense of responsibility or no conscious thought about the affect activities have upon it that this dichotomy is at its greatest. And just to label the point even more, man maybe free when he has mastery over nature but the danger with it is that the dangers of this dichotomy are forgotten!