10 things which prove that London's green belt is a terrible idea

Look at all that lovely intensively farmed land. Image: London First/Quod/SERC.

When the idea of a permanent ring of green space surrounding London was first floated in the years before WW2, the intention was that it would improve the lives of the city's inhabitants.

The Green Belt would be a narrow band, perhaps no more than a mile wide; it wouldn’t necessarily even be continuous. But it'd be publicly owned, and publicly accessible, and would thus provide pleasant and health-giving parkland, conveniently located for every Londoner.

What it wouldn't be was a thick slab of privately owned farmland miles from anywhere, whose main impact on Londoners would be to push up house prices.

That, though, is the green belt we've ended up with. So today the pressure group London First and regeneration consultancy Quod have published a report (yes, another one) calling on the authorities to have a rethink. London's population is growing fast, but its housing stock isn’t, and one big reason is we don't have enough land to build on.

To improve the lot of Londoners today, and to ensure high housing costs don't start having a negative impact on the city's businesses, the report argues, it's time to think again about whether all that land is worth protecting.

The report is full of fascinating maps and stats on what the green belt is really like. Here are our favourites.

1) London is more than two-thirds green

More than a fifth (22 per cent) of land within the Greater London boundary is green belt. That figure is a bit misleading, though, because when you include parks, and gardens, and so forth, actually nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) of London is “green”; only 28 per cent of all land is actually built on. The remainder (7.5 per cent) is mysteriously unclassified.

2) Nearly half of London’s boroughs include more green belt than housing

Of the 33 local authorities within London, 14 of them have more land given over to green belt than housing. In fact, just four of London's local authorities are more than half built up:

3) The green belt doesn’t include those parks you actually visit

The green belt swallows large chunks of outer London. Perversely, though, it doesn't include areas of parkland they're most likely to use, such as Hampstead Heath, Richmond Park and the Lower Lea Valley (labels ours):

Only 13 per cent of London's green belt is actually accessible to the public:

4) Or those bits that are good for biodiversity:

Another 13 per cent is “environmentally protected”: nature reserves, ancient woodland and so on.

5) The green belt is actually mostly farms

Most than half of the green belt (59 per cent) is actually given over to agriculture. 

Do the sums, and you'll find that means that 13 per cent all land in the capital is covered in farms. Which, let's be honest, aren't much use to the average Londoner.

6) Except for the bits which are golf courses

Another 7.1 per cent is golf courses. That’s more than twice the size of the borough of Kensington & Chelsea, which has a similar population to Cambridge (just over 160,000). That's a lot of space given over to golfers in the middle of a housing crisis. 

7) Around 2 per cent of the green belt itself is built up

That’s not because of creeping ribbon development, but because when the belt was first created it swallowed pre-existing roads, houses and even whole villages.

8) London is building more houses than it has for a while

London's house building rates have actually picked up in recent years...

9) But nothing like enough

...but it's been missing the targets by more than ever. The Greater London Authority thinks the city needs to build anything between 49,000 and 62.000 new homes a year until 2036. Suffice it to say that it isn't anything close to that.

10) High house prices don't just hurt renters – they hurt the economy

A narrow plurality of Londoners say they would consider leaving the city if housing costs keep rising – and a significant majority of business leaders think it's a risk to the economy.

So, basically, if you're a farmer, a golfer, or someone who owns a house in the green belt, you should fight tooth and claw to protect it.

If you’re not any of those things, though, it might be time to think again.

All images taken from: "The Green Belt: A Place for Londoners?", published today by London First, Quod and the Social Economics Research Centre.


Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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