The Metropolitan Green Belt is embedded in people’s psyche as the epitome of British countryside alongside the moors of Yorkshire and the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands. It embodies a romantic vision of a preserved landscape – a green and pleasant land where time stays still in contrast to the dizzying urban beast that is London, spewing out pollution, noise and decadence.
Whilst many areas within the Metropolitan Green Belt are undoubtedly beautiful and should be vehemently preserved and nurtured, there is mounting pressure to release more of the designated land to ease housing pressures. This unsurprisingly pits conservationists against developers, idealists against pragmatists, and feeds into party politics.
Much of the debate revolves around housing development and whether increased development will signal the death of the Green Belt as a policy concept; a reductionist and a narrow prism through which to see the debate. A wider strategic view of Green Belt policy is required to address the multiple and interconnected issues facing London and the South-East.
The idyll of the Green Belt as an untouched haven is mostly unfounded. With the remaining wildlife clinging on in hedgerows and in pockets of lush woodland, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), and Sites of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSIs), the Green Belt is for the most part a man-made landscape; a polluted pasture land devoid of biodiversity.
Much of the existing agricultural land is actually in poor condition, with its depleted soils heavily reliant on chemical fertiliser, fungicides and pesticides, which have a damaging effect on biodiversity, key insect pollinators, rivers and ground water sources.
Large swathes of Green Belt land are also unproductive, and are disguised as agricultural in order to collect farm subsidies. Land banking is also common, in the hope that landowners can cash in on speculative development on their land. The Green Belt arguably preserves privilege, whilst many get crippled by appallingly high rent in the urban area.
As well as being unaffordable, London is rabidly hungry. Huge quantities of food produce are imported into London from the world over, clocking up food miles and emissions, which is inherently unsustainable and wasteful. In this respect, the Green Belt surrounding London is an untapped resource; an available space available ideal for the formation of a peri-urban agroecological system.
Broadly speaking, agroecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design, development, and management of sustainable agricultural systems. Along with the release of appropriate Green Belt land for housing and associated infrastructure (schools, roads, essential amenities etc) in close proximity to London and existing transport nodes, a wider vision of the function of the Green Belt is required.
Utilising the Green Belt to produce a portion of the food consumed within London, for example, is an astute spatial adaptation. Indeed, not only would this reduce emissions by sourcing produce locally but with the use of agroecology, it is also an opportunity to provide nutritious organic produce, improve soil health, increase biodiversity, and create jobs.
Agroecology is a form of organic farming whose main ethos is the production of a diversified yield of crops without the use of pesticides or chemical fertiliser. The Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN held an International symposium on agroecology in April 2018 in which it stressed the need to scale up agroecology initiatives so as to meet UN sustainable development goals (SDGs).
In many ways it is an insurgent form of agriculture that goes against the tide of intensive industrial scale farming, minimises human impact and works in symbiosis with local ecosystems – enhancing the synergy between plants, insects, crops and soil fertility. Adopting these methods would bolster climate change resilience and considerably alleviate food insecurity.
Releasing strategic areas of land for housing in transport corridors and nodes as well as within and bordering existing Green Belt settlements should be accompanied by the implementation of a closed-loop agroecological system on suitable land. Such a system could also go hand-in-hand with sustainable waste management: the tons of biodegradable food waste generated in the city can be utilised to provide organic fertiliser or biogas through anaerobic digestion.
Incentives should be given to landowners and farmers to reforest parcels of barren land and they should be encouraged to diversify their crops and adopt agroecological principles. The benefits of this would be multi-pronged from an ecological perspective as well as from an economic and social perspective. It would contribute towards more self-sufficiency instead of a reliance on imported foods.
Reform of Green Belt policy is long overdue. The fundamental planning tenets of Green Belt policy – namely limiting sprawl, settlement coalescence, maintaining “openness”, and assisting in urban regeneration through the recycling of brownfield land can still be preserved but should also be questioned.
What is “openness” for example if it means preserving a sterile green desert and presiding over an insect Armageddon? The national planning system and other relevant bodies and policy-makers should give the Green Belt a wider role in the sustainable urban management of Greater London.
Thomas Courtney is a Bedford-based town planner, writing in a personal capacity.