How to make the green belt productive - but keep it green

Walkers on Box Hill, in the North Downs. Most green belt doesn't look like this. Image: Getty.

England’s green belts have had, and continue to have, a major impact on town planning. The idea of a ring of countryside surrounding an urban area to prevent sprawl originated in the 1930s, spread to post-war London and was adopted nationally in 1955. Today, about 13% of England is green belt land

But what made sense in the 1950s seems outdated and rather stale now. A one-size-fits-all approach to tackling complex planning issues tends to create more problems than it solves. You don’t need a belt-shaped area of land to check urban sprawl; you don’t need to block all development to promote greener outcomes. Perhaps in the 21st century it is time to admit that green belts are no longer fit for purpose.

In theory, the idea of still has strong protection within the government’s planning framework. That document identifies five strategic functions for the green belt:

  • To check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
  • To prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
  • To assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
  • To preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
  • To assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

But green belts have been attacked for failing to meet these purposes by a range of vested interests, who've proposed a range of different ideas in response. The head of Persimmon housebuilders, for instance, has called for a relaxation of green belt controls to ease the housing crisis. The chancellor wants more imagination from local planning authorities in where houses are built – including possible incursions into the green belt. Even Natural England, the government body responsible for safeguarding England’s natural environment, has previously called for a major policy rethink

In any case green belt protection is potentially illusory. Greenfield sites, including green belt, are increasingly favoured by developers as they are cheaper to exploit than brownfield sites which have much higher transaction costs. Here economic growth priorities and national planning policy tend to push development pressures onto the urban fringe areas, rather than to more costly brownfield land.

There is clear evidence that while green belts have stopped urban expansion (at least, in some cities), they have resulted in unintended consequences: higher-density development at the urban fringe, including disconnected “edge cities”, and “leapfrogging” development over the green belt to undermine other areas of countryside.

Green belts have a presumption against development, and thus come with little incentive to be positively managed for environmental, community or economic purposes. This leads to degraded landscapes which, while having a valid planning function, produce limited benefit to communities and the environment – unless, of course, you are lucky enough to live in or next to one.

As with natural assets more generally, it's this lack of incentive for active management that is the greatest cause for concern. It's therefore time for a fundamental rethink of the green belt.

Beyond the belt

For one thing, the “belt” metaphor has had its day. We should define bespoke areas that are functional to local geography and the needs of the cities and towns concerned; so wedges, fingers, belts, bananas or whatever shapes may equally apply.

Rather than have green belts used for just major cities we should also create a more inclusive, ubiquitous and positive set of zoning policies, that apply to large towns and major settlements.

Rather than a impose a rigid presumption against development, we should aim for zones that encourage innovative uses that generate investment in environmental and community benefits in keeping with the principles of sustainable development.

Finally, rather than enabling politically convenient incursions into the green belt under the guise of sustainable urban extensions, local planning authorities should define these zones by considering the long-term development needs of their area looking 50 years into the future rather than the present 25 years.

Positive spaces

These principles lead me to propose the idea of “green investment zones”: new positive spaces to invest in. The urban fringe could be rejuvenated by, for example, community food-growing initiatives for health and recreation, or wetland creation for flood protection and biodiversity. A green investment zone would be flexible enough to incorporate whatever new initiative an entrepreneur might propose.

This would require local planning authorities to think strategically, and come up with bolder and longer term visions about the kind of town or city they want to create. The current 25-year planning lifecycle is not long enough.

Developers shouldn’t see these zones as automatic no-go areas. While housing should not normally be allowed in them, they should act as valuable green spaces that can help to protect new and existing housing development from floods and drought. They can provide local food growing areas. and spaces for play and recreation. They also can be used to protect our agriculture and, perhaps more controversially, for energy production (solar, anaerobic digestion or biomass) – neglected planning factors, all.

In this green belt debate we need to move out of the silo thinking. Separating housing, industry, transport, community, landscape and environment needs just leads to disintegrated development.

The green belt may no longer be fit for purpose – but it must not be allowed to become a developers’ charter for nothing more than the short-term pursuit of economic growth. We need to create a more equitable, environmentally-friendly and socially-responsible zoning tool. In that way, we could address current planning shortfalls, and promote a more positive image for planning. The Conversation

Alister Scott is Professor of Environment and Spatial Planning at Birmingham City University.

He has received funding from Research Councils UK, Defra, Scottish and Welsh Governments as part of the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme for work on the urban rural fringe. He has also received funding from Research Councils UK, Defra and the Welsh Government as part of the National Ecosystem Assessment Follow on Programme. The ideas in this article stem from these research projects but are personal views and do not reflect the views of other partners in the research.

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

 
 
 
 

A warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.