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 fun map allows you to see what a nuclear detonation would do to any city on Earth

A 1971 nuclear test at Mururoa atoll. Image: Getty.

In 1984, the BBC broadcast Threads, a documentary-style drama in which a young Sheffield couple rush to get married because of an unplanned pregnancy, but never quite get round to it because half way through the film the Soviets drop a nuclear bomb on Sheffield. Jimmy, we assume, is killed in the blast (he just disappears, never to be seen again); Ruth survives, but dies of old age 10 years later, while still in her early 30s, leaving her daughter to find for herself in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

It’s horrifying. It’s so horrifying I’ve never seen the whole thing, even though it’s an incredibly good film which is freely available online, because I once watched the 10 minutes from the middle of the film which show the bomb actually going off and it genuinely gave me nightmares for a month.

In my mind, I suppose, I’d always imagined that being nuked would be a reasonably clean way to go – a bright light, a rushing noise and then whatever happened next wasn’t your problem. Threads taught me that maybe I had a rose-tinted view of nuclear holocaust.

Anyway. In the event you’d like to check what a nuke would do to the real Sheffield, the helpful NukeMap website has the answer.

It shows that dropping a bomb of the same size as the one the US used on Hiroshima in 1945 – a relatively diddly 15kt – would probably kill around 76,500 people:

Those within the central yellow and red circles would be likely to die instantly, due to fireball or air pressure. In the green circle, the radiation would kill at least half the population over a period of hours, days or weeks. In the grey, the thing most likely to kill you would be the collapse of your house, thanks to the air blast, while those in the outer, orange circle would most likely to get away with third degree burns.

Other than that, it’d be quite a nice day.

“Little boy”, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was tiny, by the standards of the bombs out there in the world today, of course – but don’t worry, because NukeMap lets you try bigger bombs on for size, too.

The largest bomb in the US arsenal at present is the B-83 which, weighing in at 1.2Mt, is about 80 times the size of Little Boy. Detonate that, and the map has to zoom out, quite a lot.

That’s an estimated 303,000 dead, around a quarter of the population of South Yorkshire. Another 400,000 are injured.

The biggest bomb of all in this fictional arsenal is the USSRS’s 100Mt Tsar Bomba, which was designed but never tested. (The smaller 50MT variety was tested in 1951.) Here’s what that would do:

Around 1.5m dead; 4.7m injured. Bloody hell.

We don’t have to stick to Sheffield, of course. Here’s what the same bomb would do to London:

(Near universal fatalities in zones 1 & 2. Widespread death as far as St Albans and Sevenoaks. Third degree burns in Brighton and Milton Keynes. Over 5.9m dead; another 6m injured.)

Everyone in this orange circle is definitely dead.

Or New York:

(More than 8m dead; another 6.7m injured. Fatalities effectively universal in Lower Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and Hoboken.)

Or, since it’s the biggest city in the world, Tokyo:

(Nearly 14m dead. Another 14.5m injured. By way of comparison, the estimated death toll of the Hiroshima bombing was somewhere between 90,000 and 146,000.)

I’m going to stop there. But if you’re feeling morbid, you can drop a bomb of any size on any area of earth, just to see what happens.


And whatever you do though: do not watch Threads. Just trust me on this.

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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