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.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.