Can London's farmers survive the housing crisis?

The farm horse competition at the 95th annual Middlesex Agricultural Meeting at Harmondsworth, 1933. The village is now conveniently situated for Heathrow Airport. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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