The leader of a Tory county council just said we should review the green belt

Alright, we'll hang on to this bit. Scotney Castle in the High Weald: an area of Kent that deserves the label "green belt". Image: Baryonic Being/Wikimedia Commons.

“That bloke,” someone who I assumed I couldn't hear them once said of me, “is obsessed with the green belt.” He's not wrong. It must be very dull for you all.

Anyway, on Tuesday I chaired a Policy Exchange fringe event on housing at the Tory conference in Manchester (yes, I know how that sounds, but this context is relevant, I promise).

The topic was nominally “Can building better homes unlock more homes?” – we were talking architectural standards, rather than wonkish matters of land reform. But, being obsessed, and also a troll, I self-indulgently ended the thing by asking the panel whether we needed to look again at the green belt.

Here's how one of the speakers, Paul Carter, responded:

“Personally I think we do. I think there are some very scrappy parts of the green belt which should be reviewed – and I think there are some sacrosanct parts of the green belt that must be preserved. But I think that saying that there will be no green belt review at all is the wrong thing to do.”

(This is an exact transcript of my tape of the event.)

While support for the green belt remains high among the general public, in housing circles, this isn't a particularly controversial position. Bits of the green belt aren’t actually very green: protecting them at all costs makes it harder to build houses.

Worse, it increases pressure to build on open land inside cities that don’t have green belt designation. Land like playing fields and gardens. So, while not that many people want to rip the whole thing up and start again, quite a few would like to review green belt land on a case by case basis.

If this is such a common position, why am I bothering to report it? Because of who was speaking. Paul Carter is a Conservative councillor, and the leader of Kent County council – a county whose entire western end is covered by green belt.

The green belt. Image: The London Society, with our annotations.

Kent is nicknamed the “garden of England”, incidentally.

In other words, what we have here is a senior Conservative in local government, publicly stating that bundling up everything from Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to gravel car parks and calling them “green belt” is possibly not very helpful in this day and age.

In what may not be a coincidence, Kent has one of the biggest housing crises in the Home Counties.

That said, Carter is just one man, and I don’t imagine his support for a review will change anything any time soon. The housing minister Brandon Lewis unfortunately left the meeting before I did that particular bit of a trolling – but last March he did write this piece for Conservative Home, promising to “maintain our rock-solid protections for the Green Belt”.

As Carter himself continued:

“I know that in higher places they're exceedingly sensitive about green belt release. Which comes back to new towns, new villages on green field away from anybody else, that don't brass off the NIMBYs – because there aren't any NIMBYs there.”

In other words, the green belt isn't going anywhere fast.

One last quote from that meeting. Here's what Chris Walker, Policy Exchange's head of housing and planning, said in response to my question about whether we should rethink the green belt:

“Definitely, yes. I'll just quote a statistic at you – that if we use 10 per cent of the green belt inside the M25, we could build 1m homes.”

I'm just going to leave that there.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric and tweets as @jonnelledge.


To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.