7 London boroughs are more than 25% green belt

London's beautiful green belt. Image of Rainham Marshes courtesy of Romfordian, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ask whether it's time to re-think Britain's green belts, as we often do in these parts, and you're likely to get a mixed response. Part of your audience – the younger, more urban, more-likely-to-be-private-tenants part – will cheer you on. But a significant minority will call you all sorts of names, accuse you of being in the pocket of the construction industry, and probably at some point blame immigration.

Such is life. But since this debate isn't going to go away any time soon, we thought it might be worth injecting some figures into it. Let’s consider the Metropolitan Green Belt which has restricted London’s growth since 1938.

There are 33 boroughs in London, of which no fewer than 19 have at least some protected Green Belt land within them. This chart shows the size of those 19 by area (total bar length), and the proportion of each which is designated as Green Belt (the bit that's, well, green). We’ve taken our data from government figures, hosted here.

 

The first thing that you notice is that Bromley is enormous. At around 150 km2, it takes up very nearly a tenth of the entire capital, and it's larger than the eight smallest boroughs put together. (These are all in inner London, so don't feature on the graph.)

The next thing you notice is that more than half of that vast south eastern borough is green belt land (to be exact, 52 per cent of it).

In all, there’s around 77 km2 of Green Belt in Bromley: enough to swallow the City, Kensington, Islington, Hammersmith and Hackney whole, and still have room for most of Tower Hamlets. That's an area that houses nearly 1m people.

We're not seriously suggesting putting that many people in the green fields of Bromley. We're just pointing out that you could. Look:

Bromley isn't the only large outer borough that is, quite literally, half empty. Up in the north east, Havering is actually even roomier, with nearly 54 per cent of its land classified as Green Belt. Again, you can see this on the map, which shows that huge swathes of the borough are effectively empty.

To the west, Hillingdon is 43 per cent empty, while another four boroughs are more than a quarter Green Belt.

The point we're getting at here is that there is a lot of land classified as Green Belt even within London. In all, it's more than a fifth of the capital's land area (22.4 per cent).

As you might expect, the neighbouring areas are often even more in the grip of the Green Belt. Here's the same chart, but this time showing counties:

Now, “green belt" is actually at times a misleading label. The name evokes beautiful rolling fields, and some of this land will live up to that image. But it also includes quarries, and scrubland, and golf courses, and pony clubs. Some of this land is of value to the community; some of it isn't.

Nonetheless, there are those who see it as inviolable – who squeal at any suggestion we should re-label it as anything other than green belt, or develop it to meet London's housing needs. People who imagine that giving up even one blade of grass will turn the entirety of England into Houston within weeks.


But what it is that terrifies them so remains a complete mystery to me, because they are winning, hands down. Between 2007 and 2010, London lost approximately 140 hectares of green belt land, but gained another 100 elsewhere. In total, then, it lost 40. For those who are keeping score, that's just over 0.1 per cent of all its green belt land.

And this, remember, is not 0.1 per cent of the entire green belt – it’s 0.1 per cent of the portion of the green belt which is contained within the official boundaries of the city. The green belt as a whole is approximately 15 times larger, and that isn’t going anywhere either.

It'd probably be foolish to scrap the green belt altogether, and simply let the construction industry let rip. But it's equally naive to imagine that this land is, and must always remain, inviolable.

London can build the extra homes that its population needs. We've more than enough space.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.


Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.