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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.