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.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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