7 London boroughs are more than 25% green belt

London's beautiful green belt. Image of Rainham Marshes courtesy of Romfordian, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ask whether it's time to re-think Britain's green belts, as we often do in these parts, and you're likely to get a mixed response. Part of your audience – the younger, more urban, more-likely-to-be-private-tenants part – will cheer you on. But a significant minority will call you all sorts of names, accuse you of being in the pocket of the construction industry, and probably at some point blame immigration.

Such is life. But since this debate isn't going to go away any time soon, we thought it might be worth injecting some figures into it. Let’s consider the Metropolitan Green Belt which has restricted London’s growth since 1938.

There are 33 boroughs in London, of which no fewer than 19 have at least some protected Green Belt land within them. This chart shows the size of those 19 by area (total bar length), and the proportion of each which is designated as Green Belt (the bit that's, well, green). We’ve taken our data from government figures, hosted here.

 

The first thing that you notice is that Bromley is enormous. At around 150 km2, it takes up very nearly a tenth of the entire capital, and it's larger than the eight smallest boroughs put together. (These are all in inner London, so don't feature on the graph.)

The next thing you notice is that more than half of that vast south eastern borough is green belt land (to be exact, 52 per cent of it).

In all, there’s around 77 km2 of Green Belt in Bromley: enough to swallow the City, Kensington, Islington, Hammersmith and Hackney whole, and still have room for most of Tower Hamlets. That's an area that houses nearly 1m people.

We're not seriously suggesting putting that many people in the green fields of Bromley. We're just pointing out that you could. Look:

Bromley isn't the only large outer borough that is, quite literally, half empty. Up in the north east, Havering is actually even roomier, with nearly 54 per cent of its land classified as Green Belt. Again, you can see this on the map, which shows that huge swathes of the borough are effectively empty.

To the west, Hillingdon is 43 per cent empty, while another four boroughs are more than a quarter Green Belt.

The point we're getting at here is that there is a lot of land classified as Green Belt even within London. In all, it's more than a fifth of the capital's land area (22.4 per cent).

As you might expect, the neighbouring areas are often even more in the grip of the Green Belt. Here's the same chart, but this time showing counties:

Now, “green belt" is actually at times a misleading label. The name evokes beautiful rolling fields, and some of this land will live up to that image. But it also includes quarries, and scrubland, and golf courses, and pony clubs. Some of this land is of value to the community; some of it isn't.

Nonetheless, there are those who see it as inviolable – who squeal at any suggestion we should re-label it as anything other than green belt, or develop it to meet London's housing needs. People who imagine that giving up even one blade of grass will turn the entirety of England into Houston within weeks.

But what it is that terrifies them so remains a complete mystery to me, because they are winning, hands down. Between 2007 and 2010, London lost approximately 140 hectares of green belt land, but gained another 100 elsewhere. In total, then, it lost 40. For those who are keeping score, that's just over 0.1 per cent of all its green belt land.

And this, remember, is not 0.1 per cent of the entire green belt – it’s 0.1 per cent of the portion of the green belt which is contained within the official boundaries of the city. The green belt as a whole is approximately 15 times larger, and that isn’t going anywhere either.

It'd probably be foolish to scrap the green belt altogether, and simply let the construction industry let rip. But it's equally naive to imagine that this land is, and must always remain, inviolable.

London can build the extra homes that its population needs. We've more than enough space.

 
 
 
 

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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