A tenth of London’s land is still free of housing, shops or concrete sprawl. Instead, it is used for growing food.
There are more than 450 farms growing crops or rearing livestock in the bounds of Greater London. More than half of the 12,000 hectares are in the city’s east and southeast. The rest is mostly in the northwest.
That’s not just a curiosity in a capital of 8.6m people. Those people need homes, and there’s already a lack of housing.
We’ve heard this week that building on the green belt might help. It covers 22 per cent of London’s land, and up to two-thirds of that is farmed. A report by charity Shelter and consultancy Quod argued that, if we are to build 50,000 homes a year, building on green belt has to be an option.
So far both mayoral frontrunners, Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Kahn, have ruled it out. But is farmland a good use of space?
A 2015 report, from the free market Adam Smith Institute, claimed intensive agriculture in London was wasteful. But in 2010, the London Assembly’s Planning and Housing Committee concluded the opposite in 2010:
There is a good case to be made that commercial agriculture is one of the best and most productive land uses in the Green Belt. The benefits include: opportunities for local job creation, skills development, regeneration, preservation and management of green space, potential for waste management, providing healthy locally produced food and so reducing food packaging and food miles, and the potential for improving food security.
London makes a show of feeding itself. There has been an urban farming boom. Start-ups are growing salad in rooftop containers, or underground in old air raid shelters. Food network Capital Growth has counted more than 2,500 “growing spaces”, in gardens, schools or small patches of green.
But self-sufficiency is a dream. Those innovative schemes are often expensive and will barely dent the city’s food demand. The green belt commercial farms are about half the size of the national average. And most of their milk, meat and grain will head outwards to be processed in factories, anyway. So why protect the land?
London farmer John Hunter already feels the urban encroachment. He grows crops on land rented from different landlords, including the borough of Enfield. Some of his neighbours within 10 miles have had whole farms earmarked for development. “I don’t feel secure about the long-term future of being here,” Hunter says.
He is realistic about the weak business case for growing food in London. It only happens for moral or historic reasons, he says. But farmers also make the green belt tidy and worth-protecting.
“I know when we have walked away from corners of fields it doesn’t take long for the brambles and the self-seeding saplings to start growing — then you have got a little scrubland,” he says. “I am sure people like to see the seasons in their countryside. There must be a feel-good factor for those living here or driving through.”
Philip Skinner, a dairy farmer on London’s southern fringe, says it would be sad for the green belt farms to disappear. There are advantages to farming near lots of people, especially if they’ve got money, he says. There are ways to make extra cash, like running a shop or market, letting fields to horse-owners, or using barns for car and coach storage.
Skinner expects all the smaller pockets of land to be filled in over the coming decades, as the fast growth continues in southern suburbs like Croydon. But he says the experience of California’s fertile Santa Clara Valley is still a long time off.
“What is now Silicon Valley was one of the most productive growing areas in America. But, as Silicon Valley industries grew, they stopped growing prunes. We are not quite like that yet.”
There’s a risk of being city-centric, here. Londoners are not the only people who could lose their countryside.
William Westacott, who milks 190 cows in the first green valley to the south east of the city in Kent, admits he lives in a bubble. His landlord is the Chevening Estate, whose grand house is an official residence of the British Foreign Secretary. The trustees won’t allow major residential building on their land.
He says pressure to keep green spaces comes from the commuter belt, not just the metropolis. Sevenoaks, a wealthy town, is 15 minutes drive away, just beyond the M25. Its residents enjoy walking and cycling in the hills around Westacott’s farm.
“Most of the development I am hearing about tends to be the other side of the motorway, in other towns,” he says. “The infilling that people have predicted may not even happen.”
There are important decisions to be taken about London’s green space. But they are not London’s choices alone.
Charlie Taverner tweets as @charlietaverner.