Why making London a National Park City risks diluting the value of the national park brand

The Peak District: unlike London, an actual National Park. Image: Getty.

The movement to declare London a national park city in 2019 is gaining momentum. Mayor Sadiq Khan recently launched National Park City Week, along with a series of outdoor activities to kick off the school holidays. Citizen groups and local authorities are signing up to a charter, with the aim of creating a city rich in wildlife, with clean air and affordable green homes – a London where everyone has access to quality green space and rivers that are safe to swim in.

The plan is to create a Greater London National Park City partnership, with representatives in each of London’s 33 boroughs. This new organisation will have no formal powers, and its estimated £4m annual running costs will be raised from public and corporate giving. It’s an unprecedented proposal: up until now, only sovereign states – not cities – have declared national parks and specified how they will be managed, according to national law.

The motivations driving this initiative are admirable, worthy and important. Citizens across the capital have mobilised around the belief that making their city greener, wilder and healthier will improve their quality of life. But as British people head outdoors for the summer – whether in the city, or the countryside - I ask that time is taken to ponder the wisdom of aligning the term “national park” with a city – and the nation’s capital, at that.

A rural asset

The term “national park” was coined in the US in the 1870s, to encapsulate a policy vision aimed at building a sense of national identity and strengthening collective values through the enjoyment of nature.

Britain’s national parks were planned as part of the post-World War II reconstruction. The 1949 National Park Act was underpinned by progressive policy ideals, with a view to re-imaging the national identity after empire, promoting outdoor recreation as part of a holistic national health policy and creating cultural and economic flows between the cities and the countryside.

National parks were imagined as scenic natural areas with a connection to surrounding cities. To that end, Britain’s first national parks were located beyond – but within reach of – major industrial centres. Today, the geography of Britain is defined by both its natural and urban areas; by both London and the Lake District, Leeds and New Forest, Birmingham, Bristol, and Manchester as well as the Peak District and the North York Moors.

National parks have, until now, been a rural asset. The EU referendum revealed an urban-rural political divide, alongside a rise in identity poltics. Linking the national park brand with a city in the same year that Britain leaves the European Union could inflame these issues, because rural citizens might feel that the capital is appropriating and diluting a brand and identity that is theirs.

National parks have value because they celebrate and empower rural and regional identities in relation to cites – while also bridging the gap between them.


Going green

It’s well established that greener and wilder cities can benefit residents and the economy alike. In the 1980s, cities such as Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham, Telford and London all invested in “bringing back” countryside and nature through a combination of urban planning, land reclamation, public education and leisure facilities.

City authorities also appointed ecologists and designated networks of Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (known as SINCs, for short). Urban wildlife trusts formed in Birmingham and the Black Country in 1980, London in 1982 and Sheffield and Rotherham in 1985.

If London declares its self a national park city, a bunch of other cities would have strong grounds to do the same. But this could simply end up diluting the public value of the national park brand. It could be more difficult to make sense of the national geography, if it were made up of national parks and national park cities.

Cities often adopt labels and slogans in their promotion and marketing. But certain labels are associated with awards, competitions and designations that meet ambitions and standards set by authoritative third parties. Labels such as UK City of Culture, European Green Capital, Olympic city, UNESCO world heritage site and national park all have meaning, prestige, obligations and impact, because they are embedded within institutional structures of society.

Of course, citizens are free to band together to act outside of these institutions – but authorities should reflect carefully before supporting moves that could undermine them.

Becoming a Biosphere City

London doesn’t meet the criteria to be designated a national park under UK law. But it could meet the criteria of a Biosphere Reserve. The UNESCO Man in the Biosphere Programme was launched in 1971, to explore ways of improving the relationship between people and their environments. The programme has a strong focus on sustainability, science, innovation and shared learning to develop local solutions to global challenges.

The Isle of Man and the municipal borough of Brighton and Hove are Biosphere Reserves. And although “London Biosphere City” may not have the same cachet as “London National Park City”, the term clearly connects the aims of London’s draft environment strategy with the National Park City movement.

The ConversationIt’s great that Londoners want to make their city wilder and greener. But adopting the “national park” label risks damaging a brand and policy ideal that has served Britain well. In contrast, the term “biosphere city” can engage with broader sustainability agendas, while reinforcing the image of London as a progressive, global city.

Paul Jepson, Course Director, MSc Biodiversity, Conservation and Management, University of Oxford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.