A reform of the Green Belt is long overdue. Here’s how it should be used

A waste of space. Image: London First/Quod/SERC.

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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.