Politicians – including London’s mayor Sadiq Khan – don’t want to talk about the Green Belt. The subject is just too toxic. Every time there is the slightest suggestion that it might be changed, tweaked or shrunk, the hysterical response from the Daily Telegraph, the National Trust and Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) is enough to shut down any rational debate. But, as Khan works on his new London Plan, the topic just won’t go away.
I recently joined in a debate at the Architecture Club, which was founded in the 1920s and was then at the forefront of the discussion about regional planning and the deployment of land and resources to create a more just and more beautiful city. The first London Plan, produced by the London Society (of which I am chairman) in 1919, included ideas for a green girdle: an “outer park system, or continuous garden city right round London, that would be a healthful zone of pleasure, civic interest, and enlightenment”.
In London of the Future, the London Society’s book of 1922, architect David Niven and garden city planner Raymond Unwin suggested two key reasons for a green belt: to stop the city growing and “to protect its inhabitants from disease, by providing fresh air, fresh fruit and vegetables, space for recreation and contact with and knowledge of nature”. Little has changed, the health and wellbeing of London’s residents is right at the very top of the political and planning agenda today, although we may grow fewer vegetables ourselves.
Unwin had envisaged a mile-wide green belt that would act in the same way as a city wall; today the London Green Belt has grown like Topsy in nimby counties, it is nearly 40 miles wide measured from Rainham Marshes to Wallasea Island in the east, and the same from Finchley to Ampthill in the north. It is 23 miles from Hayes to Wargrave in the west.
The city has no edge as Unwin desired. Ask anyone where the Green Belt starts. No one knows. Why don’t we design a new edge? We should look seriously at Peter Barber’s Hundred Mile City – a street-based, linear city a 100 miles long, 200m wide and four storeys high, wrapped around London. With little factories, schools, houses and shops laid out in terraces along intimately scaled streets and around squares, Barber’s vision would provide a dense, intense edge to London: a “confident purposeful boundary fronting a revitalised productive countryside”.
Today the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that “the fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to safeguard the countryside”. Look at Google satellite maps and you see its main job is to safeguard golf courses – a minority sport whose take-up has dropped by 30% over the last decade as cycling has become “the new golf”.
The NPPF wants to preserve “setting and special character” – which it does, but it also maintains high property values by restricting development.
I support the Green Belt – it is one of the great icons of British planning. I don’t even think it needs to be reduced in area, but we do need to make sure its location and form are fit for purpose and make best use of our most important and unreplicable asset – land. The knee-jerk reaction of the protectors of green belt – even to a sensible review – is such that any debate has stalled.
Even so, the London Green Belt Council’s interactive map shows several hundred proposals which they see as “threats to the Green Belt”. The CPRE has found that councils are proposing almost 300,000 homes on green belt around English cities. It is being eaten away without a coherent strategic vision – we need a regional plan that covers the area outside the Greater London boundary. It is high time for a proper review of the Green Belt.
Despite its untouchable status, London’s Green Belt is being eaten away with no coherent vision. We need a review to ensure that it’s fit for purpose