Is Inner London actually more green than Outer London?

And was London builded here in England's green and pleasant land? Yes, pretty much. Image: Maxwell Hamilton

For all the stereotypes of London – the dark star, the big smoke, the hellish swirling cloud of pollution and desperate millennials scrowling the concrete jungle for their next avocado fix – it's a pretty green city. In fact, you can quite literally see from space just how green London is. 

It has a very low population density relative to other major world cities – think in particular of the high-rise cacophony of Hong Kong, New York, or Tokyo – and is packed with green spaces. 

There are the big blockbusters in the centre of town – Hyde Park, The Regent's Park, Green Park, St. James's Park – and the delightful larger expanses further out, such as Hampstead Heath, Richmond Park, and Victoria Park. 

This is without mentioning any of the tiny, often council-run, public green spaces that are dotted around the capital. Within a 30-minute walk of my standard zone-2-type place, I can easily access 11 such spaces. That's good going. 

But a City Hall report this month warns that green things in London aren't as peachy as they seem – and this map shows that pretty well. 

The seven, cross-party London Assembly members who compiled the report warned that "half of London households live too far away from the nearest green space – more than the maximum recommended distance of 400m in the London Plan".

And what's obvious is that, counter-intuitively, you're more likely to live within the recommended distance of a public green space if you're further into London. 

The bits of London that aren't 'close' to a public green space. Image: London Assembly.

The red patches on the map are all the places where you're more than 400m from the nearest green space – and those are largely splodged further out, in boroughs such as Bromley, Havering, and Enfield. What's going on here? 

The obvious answer is that residents of further-out boroughs will be more likely to have their own gardens – green space alright, but not public green space. 

This map, from the same report, shows that pretty well. 

The total green space - including private - in London. Image: London Assembly.

The pale whiter spaces in the centre of London show the areas where there's not really any green happening at all – public or otherwise – while the gradual greening intensifies until the outermost reaches of London are basically just huge green swathes with occasional houses dotted around. 

Indeed, half of London is green space – which is a phenomenal figure. So, does the relative lack of public green space in outer London really matter? 

It does. Arguments that it doesn't all rest on the assumption that everyone in those outer boroughs lives in an entire house with a garden, which – though lovely as a thought – is clearly not true. 

This deer feels dubious about the assertion of the headline. Image: Berit Watkin.

The lack of public green space provision in Outer London means that people living in flats – either in blocks, above a shop, or in one or two floors of a semi-detached or terraced house – are left out of loop. 

What's more, aside from the obvious benefits of parkland – fresh air, space for exercise, heatlh benefits and so on – they're also great for mixing people together socially. While your private garden in Bromley might be great for you, it means you're less likely to rub up against the world and his uncle (and his dog) in the park – whether they're taking the kids out to play, walking the dog, or just taking a stroll. 

And though that can't necessarily be quantified empirically, the effect on an individual's outlook, and approach to life, is probably not a fantastic one. 

So rejoice, inner Londoners. You might live cheek by jowl in the big smoke, but at least you've got space to walk the dog you don't have in the park round the corner. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.

Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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