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Beware new justifications for green belt. What we need is a new approach.

Despite the housing crisis in London, the Draft London Plan (DLP) rules out any rethinking of green belt policy now some eighty years old. Instead it gives a number of justifications for falling in line with the Government’s approach which is to promise a solution to the housing shortage while refusing to update our approach to green belt policy – a case of trying to have ones cake and eat it. In this blog I look at the justifications in the DLP for refusing to rethink the green belt. Some of these latest justifications reflect the long history of the green belt of overpromising on what it delivers while denying any role in the housing crisis that we now face. In this blog I look, point by point, at the case in the DLP for an unaltered approach to the green belt.

First, to quote the DLP on a fact on which we can all agree, “London’s Green Belt makes up 22 per cent of London’s land area”. The Plan reminds its readers of this startling fact without any further comments – other than to state that the Mayor would support even more green belt. In a city with a severe housing crisis over one fifth of all land is immediately ruled out of consideration. This suggests that there is something uniquely sacred about every piece of green belt as none of it can be called upon, alongside other sources of land, to help house Londoners. So let’s look at the reasons given for refusing to rethink green belt policy. The DLP offers seven reasons for leaving the green belt unchallenged. I start with the four reasons most closely related to the government’s purposes for the green belt.

Contains the further expansion of built development

The main purpose of the green belt is to stop the physical expansion of London into the surrounding countryside. It might seem odd then, that there is green belt inside London. Surely it should be outside the city, encircling London? This curiosity is the result of much of the green belt having been designated before London’s borders were expanded in the 1960s. This leaves us with the strange yet taken-for-granted situation that green belt prevents development inside London. This creates real problems in boroughs such as Enfield where development is concentrated in the poorer parts of the borough to the east. Meanwhile green belt more or less stops development in the richer west of the borough. The same is true in Waltham Forest where residents complain of intensification in the south of the borough while much of the north is largely off limits because of green belt.

Drives the re-use and intensification of London’s previously developed brownfield land

It is generally highly desirable to build on previously developed land, of course we don’t want to leave all this land unused while the city expands out into the countryside. However, just as building on some of the green belt is not a quick and simple solution to the housing crisis neither is brownfield land. The complicated reality of what brownfield land can deliver and how soon is often lost to simple claims that it provides a single, sufficient source of land for housing. Focusing on brownfield leads developers to build the same amount of housing on less land. This might seem like a good thing but the problem is that developers don’t increase the amount they build over time.  

There are under-recognised social issues at play here. As brownfield land and green belt is not evenly distributed across the whole of London, the impacts of intensification are not distributed evenly. This is further exaggerated by conservation areas that also limit where intensification can happen. We need to understand better the effects of the uneven distribution of opportunities for intensification on brownfield land; the class and ethnic implications are largely uncommented and certainly not fully researched.  But it appears likely that much new development, often at higher densities, (and the disruption related to it) is concentrated where disadvantaged people live.

Ensures London makes efficient use of its land and infrastructure

Surely it’s better to build where the infrastructure is? Near to railway stations and where there are already supplies of electricity and gas. King’s Cross Central is surely a great example. Except there was no electricity supply available for that site. The developers has to provide a new sub- station to bring power in. And if making use of transport infrastructure is important surely we are building housing on land near to Underground stations, maybe at the eastern end of the Central Line? No, because it’s in the green belt. The green belt is a planning policy that often stops us from making sensible planning decisions.

Inner urban areas benefit from regeneration and investment.

It’s hard to argue that Hackney, Hammersmith, Brixton or Tooting are suffering from a lack of developer interest – patterns of gentrification suggest otherwise. Where areas are still underinvested this is often because of the need first for public investment in infrastructure as in the case of the Northern Line extension to Battersea Power Station. Incidentally, this brownfield development was 'attacked' by Mayor Sadiq Khan when the levels of affordable housing were slashed, partly because the developer had to help pay for the extension. In any case, one of the proposed solutions to London’s housing problem is the intensification of the suburbs. So surely we need to encourage investors there as well?

Next I address three ‘incidental’ reasons for keeping green belt unchanged in London: providing space for recreation; growing food, and; combating the urban heat island effect. I call these incidental reasons because they are not listed in the government’s purposes for green belt. Green belt designation is a negative power to stop development on the land not a positive power to make the land open to the public or to demand the land is carefully managed for environmental benefit. This is so because the state can designate land as green belt without owning or directly controlling it. The lack of ownership is not really a problem if you remember that green belt is only an aesthetic policy, its main purpose is simply to keep a visual divide between urban and rural areas, often only visible from trains and motorways. Green belt is not directly an environmental policy or a policy to give public access to open land or to provide land to grow food on.

Providing space for recreation. Any connection between green belt and public access to open space was lost many decades ago. In the late 1800s when green belt was just an idea, it was proposed as a way of making greenspace available to a much smaller London with a far more dense population. The London County Council would buy land and open it up to the public. But during the 1920s its purpose changed to stopping the expansion of London. Most of the green belt is not accessible to the public because it is private land. It is not the same as the parks that Londoner’s enjoy. Even if we totally abolished the green belt (which I am not suggesting), Hampstead Heath, Regent’s Park, Victoria Park, Wandsworth Common and the mass of smaller parks around London would all remain. Indeed, the green belt might lead to less access to open space if, instead of building on private green belt land, we develop public sports fields.

Growing food. Traditionally allotments have provided land to Londoner’s without gardens to grow food. However, these have been under threat because of the shortage of land for housing. In 2006 the GLA wrote a report on London's disappearing allotments and in 2017 London’s longest-surviving allotment space was under threat of being developed into housing. Although the New London Plan places much emphasis on growing food it has not updated is own data on allotments in London since 2007. Even though in the 2006 report it stated “We will now be monitoring allotment provision in London”.

Combating the urban heat island (UHI) effect The GLA has already published a summary for its decision makers on UHI’s. This sets out a number of ways the city might reduce UHIs including cool pavements, green roofs and the sky view factor. It does not mention green belt as helping address the issue. This is because the academic literature shows that heat island effects are localised, the green belt in Totteridge will not reduce heat islands in Tower Hamlets. Maintaining the green belt will likely create more local heat islands across London. Limiting the amount of land available to build on forces much higher density development on the land that is available. These local areas of much higher density development create canyon effects and other features that produce local heat islands.

This last claim, preventing heat islands, serves as a warning. Over the decades green belt has been proposed for different reasons by different people. The green belt is all too often defended by obfuscating and/or changing the justification for green belt. The classic case of this was back in the 1980s when the government looked like it was about to relax green belt constraint. Until then, the four purposes for green belt were all aesthetic – variations on keeping a clear visual divide between town and country. Once the government signalled some flexibility on this it came under intense pressure and in the end added a new reason – that green belt would encourage the regeneration of inner urban areas. This is a laudable objective although the extent to which green belt has been the cause inner city regeneration is hard to prove.

We see this tactic again with the use of the heat island argument in the Draft London Plan. This looks like an attempt to provide yet another confused reason for avoiding the, admittedly difficult, politics of rethinking the green belt. We need openness and clarity about what the green belt does and its role in the undersupply of housing. Then we can ask if the price of green belt is one worth paying. If so, we can at least maintain the green belt without spurious justifications such as growing food and mitigating urban heat islands. If not, we can start to debate a new approach to green belt policy, which might include concentrating on corridors of green with improved public access, as in the Lee Valley Regional Park.

 Connecting Green Belt, brownfield and density

Green Belt comes from an era of big government that saw its role as taking a central role in industrialpolicy and housing supply. The Metropolitan Green Belt was once part of a family of policies that sought toencourage employment away from London (eg Industrial Development Certificates), and identify locationsfor new towns beyond London. Green Belt limited land for development in some locations while employmentand New Town policies supplied land elsewhere. Reflecting this coordinated approach Green Belt wasto be secured against an almost unlimited supply of land elsewhere. It is now an ‘orphaned’ policy that continuesto restrict land supply while the rest of the family of policies providing land have gone.

 Partly as a result of the original policy family and partly due to economic changes, London’s populationshrank between the 1930s and 1980s. For fifty years the Metropolitan Green Belt constrained a shrinkingcity. The loss of population has seen a dramatic reversal and London now houses more people than at anytime in its history. Since at least the 1980s the government has substantially reduced its role in the supply ofhousing and the location of employment claiming that both are better left to the market. All well and goodmaybe, but this leaves us with a hybrid approach. The private sector that has been deemed best-placed todevelop employment sites and housing. But within the context of the Green Belt which remains as a publicpolicy directing development away from 56,000 hectares of land – that is an area more than three timesbigger than London itself.

scheme
Figure: London’s population and Green Belt (and related) policy

 

The Brownfield policy was established in 1998. As reduced the overall availability of land as it limits theamount of non-Brownfield land that can be developed. Therefore, the Brownfield land policy is no substitutefor the New Towns policy. One way of delivering much needed housing and prioritising Brownfield land is tobuild more housing on the Brownfield land that is available – to increase the density at which we build.

 It is often pointed out that London is much less dense than Paris, New York. Less helpful comparisons aremade with Hong Kong as if London should be compared to an island. These comparisons assume the virtueof density, London is doing poorly compared to other cities and could and should take more density. London doesn’t need to build out because it can build up. This seems like a fair point, let’s suppose London should become as dense as Paris. We need to be realistic about how this will happen. Paris’ central area is consistently denser than London’s. Short of knocking London down and starting again we cannot achieve a consistent density equal to Paris’. Most of London’s lower density is fixed in existing buildings, including in conservation areas. Substantially increasing density in London means building at very high density on sites as they become available. This is producing a number of outcomes; first London is becoming a patchwork of micro Manhattans. The location of high-rise buildings happens negatively, where it is not otherwise prevented – outside conservation areas and views of St Paul’s. This is a ‘legal highs’ approach, in the sense of producing products to avoid restrictive legislation. This has an equity outcome as conservation areas tend to be wealthier areas, and the view of St Paul’s from Richmond Park mainly benefits London’s wealthier residents.

As long as policies such as the Green Belt prevented horizontal growth, London would merely grow vertically. However, these two are not interchangeable options: recent research (http://voxeu.org/article/tall-buildings-and-land-values) has proved a direct relationship between the height of buildings and the increase in costs of constructions, price of land and provision of facilities. All this contributes to make London even less affordable implying that a combination of vertical and horizontal expansion has to be allowed. (http://www.lse.ac.uk/website-archive/newsAndMedia/newsArchives/2015/08/LondonSkyscapers.aspx)

Policies and decisions on Brownfield land, density and Green Belt are closely linked but are treated in isolation. Insufficient connection is made between the three. This artificial separation means that we do not balance benefits and costs sufficiently. We argue that Green Belt remains a valuable planning policy but it comes with costs that raise questions of justice and fairness with ethnic, generational and class implications.;

• It fixes where growth can happen within London and drives the type of growth that is happening. This benefits those who live next to Green Belt in Bromley but not those living next to ever more dense development in Tower Hamlets.

• The long-term undersupply of housing inflates house prices, this benefits those who already own a home put penalises those who want to set up home for the first time.

• The policy has “served both to make urban areas more compact and functional urban regions less so”. Many households struggle to find somewhere affordable to live and to get to multiple places of work, schooling and other services. Sometimes the solution is long commutes across the Green Belt to link home and work. (https://www.academia.edu/20487866/Density_and_the_built_environment)

The short point here is the Green Belt doesn’t come for free, it helps to drive higher densities on Brownfield land, and not just in London. And maybe this is fine, but we must make it clear to the public that a choice is being made; a trade-off accepted. Considering density, Brownfield and Green Belt together allows us to think more clearly about delivering the right amount of housing and employment spaces, of the right type in the best places. Green Belt impacts on these decisions. It acts as a regional policy influencing development decisions across a large part of the Wider South East. And it is very bluntly applied policy, meaning that other planning policies often have to compromise to the Green Belt. Sometimes this might be entirely appropriate – planning is all about balancing different aims. At other times it might be better to take a more flexible approach to the Green Belt – and openness - to achieve other desirable outcomes.

Because decisions on development should not be driven only by Brownfield land in isolation we favour approaching Green Belt as a regional policy that should be revised in a strategic manner. As with all policies, it seems sensible and fair to weigh the benefits and costs to seek to optimise the outcomes. Changes in the economy including how and where people live and work make it sensible to take an overall look at the Metropolitan Green Belt. However, this should not lead to easy wins; avoiding more difficult brownfield sites andquick profits for developers for example. Rather a reappraisal of the Green Belt could be an opportunity to make more of it. With this in mind we set out a series of conditions that should be met as part of any reappraisal of the Metropolitan Green Belt in our earlier report (http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/68012/)

Past Blogs 

9 Oct 2016 Green belt does not relieve pressure on London’s urban green spaces, by Meredith Whitten

Green belt does not relieve pressure on London’s urban green spaces,by Meredith Whitten

Updates of Meredith's work on Twitter@UrbanParksGirl or Facebook:Facebook.com/UrbanParksGirl

In early March, on one of those first warm, sunny days of the year that brings hope that spring is near, I spent the day walking through countryside near the historic town of Lacock. It’s the kind of iconic, idyllic English green space in which my American friends and family imagine I find myself daily. You can picture what I’m talking about – endless fields of green, sheep lazily grazing and the feeling that Alfred Wainwright might appear over the horizon at any moment. 

In a way, I can forgive my family and friends for thinking this – my research focuses on urban green spaces, and I spend a lot of time talking, thinking and tweeting about green space. Those who don’t spend every waking moment preoccupied with such things probably don’t realise that there are a lot of shades of grey when it comes to green space.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the never-ending debate about London’s green belt. This debate is rooted largely in misperceptions, the most obvious being that the Metropolitan Green Belt is, in fact, green. Organisations such as the Royal Town Planning Institute and Natural England have noted that the green belt is not actually green and is not particularly good for the environment, either (RTPI, 2005; Natural England, 2008; both cited in Thomas & Littlewood, 2010). RTPI, Natural England and others have echoed Kate Barker’s call for more flexibility regarding development in the green belt, which, they say, would provide needed new homes, lead to development that is more sustainable and offer a better fit with 21st century London (Barker, 2006).

Yet, green belt policy has achieved a “taken-for-granted” status (Thomas & Littlewood, 2010, p. 203) and is considered “unassailable,” “politically untouchable” and “one of the UK’s most renowned planning policies” (Amati, 2007, p. 579; 580; 591). Why is this? Perhaps today, as we squeeze more and more people into our cities, and these cities devour more and more land as they sprawl, we cling to the Victorian-inspired idea of unfettered countryside nipping at the city’s heels. Indeed, green belt policy has endured and gained widespread support “as an emblematic feature of the planning system” (Thomas & Littlewood, 2010, p. 219) and, thus, the purpose and aims of green belt policy have remained largely unchanged since they were set out in a government circular in 1955 (Amati, 2007, p. 580).

Yet, only 22 percent of London is designated as green belt – and only a mere 7 percent of the Metropolitan Green Belt lies within Greater London. Well, you may argue, the green belt is doing its job of containing London’s growth. But that’s not the case. The reach of London extends well beyond its bureaucratic boundaries – anyone who loses hours of their lives every week commuting to and from London can tell you this.

The argument that the green belt retains green space accessible to Londoners – a spot of countryside standing firm against the polluted, cacophonous, all-consuming city – falls flat, as well. Not only is the Metropolitan Green Belt not wholly green, but much of the 7 percent in Greater London is not publicly accessible. Ebenezer Howard’s Viennese-inspired vision of Victorian-era Londoners enjoying “all the fresh delights of the country” in an unspoilt parkland encircling the city is a myth (1902, p. 130). 

Herein lies my concern, as an urban green space researcher, with the Metropolitan Green Belt. While we quibble over green belt policy, how protected green belt land should be and whether we should release any of it for development (namely, home building), London’s urban green spaces – spaces that are publicly accessible, near urban dwellers and unquestionably green – are under immense pressure. So, while arguments for preserving the green belt – 93 percent of which falls outside Greater London – are based on the erroneous pretext that the green belt is actually green space, the urban green space we encounter daily – where we eat our lunch, walk the dog, sit in quiet reflection and play football – are falling into disrepair, losing quality and, in some instances, becoming unsafe.

The pressure on London’s urban green space comes from many angles. From a supply side, very little new publicly accessible urban green space has been created in recent years. Much of London’s existing green spaces were created more than a century ago. Local councils, the primary providers of urban green space, particularly in Inner London, hesitate to take on management of new green spaces because they have seen their budgets for parks and green spaces cut to the bone through austerity measures. Indeed, non-statutory functions such as providing green space typically are the first things cut in a local authority’s budget. 

In my research, green space professionals I interviewed recalled previous cycles of deep cuts that tangibly affected the delivery and management of these public spaces. Much of the late 20th century was characterised by “a widespread decline in the quality of urban parks and other green spaces” (Wilson & Hughes, 2011, p. 207). In a report on England’s urban green spaces, the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee identified a “spiral of decline” taking place in urban green spaces and pinned this largely on funding (Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, 1999, para. 63). Following this, England’s urban green spaces went through a renaissance, particularly from 1997 to 2010, highlighted by the Urban White Paper in 2000 and the establishment of the Urban Green Spaces Taskforce. The task force made prominent recommendations involving increasing the amount and sources of funding for urban green spaces. People I interviewed say this illustrates how much work and resources have gone into repairing and improving London’s urban green spaces. They point to the popularity – even the over-popularity – of urban green space in London that resulted from this renewed attention in an effort to highlight what could be lost with even more drastic cuts. 

Drastic cuts to London’s urban green spaces are not that far-fetched. Some boroughs are divesting themselves of green space as well as green space staff. A 2016 report by the Heritage Lottery Fund – the largest funder of parks and green spaces after local authorities – found that 92 percent of England’s park and green space managers had their budgets cut over the last three years, with one-third facing cuts of more than 20 percent. Almost all (95 percent) expected their budgets to be cut further in subsequent years. Almost half of local authorities were considering disposing of some green spaces (HLF, 2016). The cuts are severe and influential enough that last month the Communities and Local Government Committee launched an inquiry into public parks to examine the impact of reduced local authority budgets on these spaces. Clive Betts MP, the committee chairman, said, “With councils under enormous financial pressures and with no legal obligation to fund and maintain public parks, these precious community resources may be at risk” (UK Parliament, 2016).

On the demand side, London’s skyrocketing population has not just created a need for housing, but a growing demand for parks and green spaces, as well. As we build more densely – a policy priority laid out in the London Plan and ascribed to by Inner London boroughs – private amenity space is often reduced to nothing more than a Juliette balcony with barely enough space for a potted plant. Thus, Londoners increasingly turn to their green spaces for access to nature, recreation, food growing, socialising and more. Indeed, an estimated 2.6 billion visits are made to England’s parks and green spaces annually (HLF, 2014). In urban areas, 61 percent of residents use their parks and green spaces at least once a month – 10 percent more than rural residents. Even if not a single blade of grass is lost to development, the increase in demand from a growing population means green space per capita (typically a target set by local councils) decreases. This is occurring at the same time that green space facilities across London are closing or experiencing shrinking hours, meaning we are squeezing more people into less green space. 

If urban green space is under such pressure, then, doesn’t this make the case for protecting the green belt, so it can provide an escape for nature-deprived Londoners?

Research shows that for city dwellers it is “nature at the doorstep” that matters (Kaplan, 1984, p. 189). It is from proximity to nature that we derive the most benefit. Very small green spaces and even simply trees and flowers in small landscaped areas can provide opportunities for relaxation and physical and psychological escape from the crowded, hectic pace of urban life (Kaplan, 1984). We’re more likely to engage in and reap benefits from green space that is near us than we do from destination green spaces, which is what the green belt is for Londoners. But, that again assumes that the green belt is green. The reality is the green belt is not a lush field of green just a quick train journey away for Londoners. It does not alleviate pressure on London’s urban green spaces. If Londoners’ demand for green space is not met where Londoners live, no green girdle around the city will compensate for the loss of amenity, biodiversity, environmental services and recreation that our urban green spaces provide Inner London residents, workers and visitors day in, day out.

This is not to imply that as a resident of South London I don’t benefit from the existence of Hampstead Heath or Parkland Walk or any other green space. Benefits such as flood protection, climate change mitigation and economic development that green spaces bring affect all of London, which is why maintaining a system of green spaces throughout the city is critical. But, my personal use of, the benefits I reap and the demand pressures I place on urban green space will predominantly be the green space that surrounds my neighbourhood. Again, though, the green belt is no Hampstead Heath or Parkland Walk

I suspect the green belt – green or not – represents something beyond nature-based open space. It stands as a symbol of no development or no large-scale development, at least. It is comforting to know that as London experiences urban change there is somewhere in London that is untouchable. But, that fervour is misdirected, when it is urban green spaces that have a much more direct impact on our lives.

Instead of holding onto the fantasy of green space that the green belt offers, we should focus our energy on providing urban green space right outside our door and to ensuring that all Londoners have convenient access to nature and recreation in our urban green spaces. 

Whether or not we should we permit developing – and particularly developing homes – in the green belt is an issue that will continue to be debated. But, arguments in that debate should not include the mistaken stance that protecting the green belt provides Londoners with needed green space. For that, we need only look outside our doorstep. 

References 

Amati, M. 2007. “From a Blanket to a Patchwork: The Practicalities of Reforming the London Green Belt,” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 50(5), pp. 579-594.

Barker, K. 2006. Barker Review of Land Use Planning: Final Report – Recommendations. London: HM Treasury HMSO).

Heritage Lottery Fund. 2016. “State of UK Public Parks.” Available: https://www.hlf.org.uk/state-uk-public-parks-2014. Accessed: 12 April 2016.

Heritage Lottery Fund. 2016. “State of UK Public Parks.” Available:https://www.hlf.org.uk/state-uk-public-parks. Accessed: 22 September 2016.

Howard, E. 1902. Garden Cities of To-Morrow. London: Swan, Sonnenschein & Co. Ltd.

Kaplan, R., 1984. “Impact of Urban Nature: A Theoretical Analysis,” Urban Ecology, 8, 189-197.

Natural England. 2008. Natural England’s Housing Growth and Green Infrastructure Policy. Policy Statement, June. Sheffield: Natural England.

Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), 2005. Town and Country Planning (Green Belt) Direction 2005: A Response to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on Its Consultation on the Draft Direction and Accompanying Draft Circular. London: RTPI.

Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. 1999. Twentieth Report – Town and Country Parks. Available:www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199899/cmselect/cmenvtra/477/47707.htm. Accessed: 19 October 2015.

Thomas, K. and S. Littlewood. 2010. “From Green Belts to Green Infrastructure? The Evolution of a New Concept in the Emerging Soft Governance of Spatial Strategies,”Planning Practice & Research, 25(2), pp. 203-222.

UK Parliament, 2016. Future of public parks inquiry launched. Available:www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/communities-and-local-government-committee/news-parliament-2015/public-parks-launch-16-17/. Accessed: 24 July 2016.

Wilson, O. and O. Hughes, 2011. “Urban Green Space Policy and Discourse in England,”Planning Practice & Research, 26(2), pp. 207-228.

17 June 2016 Invisible green belts in Beijing: From romantic landscape to businesses opportunity, by Yimin Zhao

Invisible green belts in Beijing:  From romantic landscape to businesses opportunity, by  Yimin Zhao

The green belt may be a British idea imported to China but the concept has worked out to be very different in practice. In the context of Beijing’s urbanisation, it turns out that the local state uses the ecological discourse of the green belt to legitimate its land businesses. Despite the differences we suggest that there are lessons from China for Britain. In 1958, Beijing saw the approval of its first modern master plan (Beijing-Archives 1958). The municipal government of Beijing proposed in this master plan that “the layout of urban construction should not be concentrated in the city centre anymore, and that a new style is needed with green spaces planned between decentralised conglomerates” (ibid). This marks the birth of Beijing’s green belt as an idea (or, maybe more accurately, afeature on a map).

The idea of Green Belt in Beijing also corresponded to the heyday of a socialist campaign named “The Great Leap Forward” during which the Chinese people were mobilised by Mao Zedong to “surpass Great Britain and catch up with the United States.” Among many targets of this ambitious campaign, “gardening the Earth” was set as a socio-ecological goal to achieve (Chen 1996). In this moment, Sir Ebenezer Howard’s modernist imagination of urban space and Mao Zedong’s socialist modernist vision of the country encountered and blended with each other. Through this encountering, the British-born planning canon was embedded in Beijing’s urban planning practices, which in turn produced a view of landscape including green belt that mixed the revolutionary and the romantic.

For Chen Gan, then director of Master Plan Office in Beijing Urban Planning and Administration Bureau, a decentralised city layout including green belts could be a flexible tool to deal with rapid urbanisation and could direct urban development in a well-planned way in the long future (Chen 1996, 13-17; originally written in 1959). This partly explains why green belt has been set as an essential part of the urban area in Beijing since 1958. In practice, however, Beijing’s green belt existed more as a part of the master plan than real space for nearly four decades. In a letter written by Chen Gan in 1967, he admitted that suburban vegetable plots (more than 153.33 km2) had covered a majority of the planned green belt area. Beijing’s green belt had not achieved a romantic landscape of open countryside but was full of rural communities, residents, and their cultivated fields.

In 1994, the Beijing municipal government (BMG) focused once again on green belt. Their new aim, familiar to the UK, was to prevent the sprawl of urban areas and to make the 240km2 green belt “really green” (BMG 1994). The BMG gave the market and capital a key role as villages located within the green belt were required to “use green spaces to attractinvestments, and utilise these for the exploitation of land, build green spaces in the exploitation process, and cultivate green spaces through green industry” (ibid; my italics). These policies can be summarised in a simpler way: the green belt was to make acceptable the promotion of real-estate development in the urban fringe.

17 townships and villages were included in the city’s green belt, they covered 95.23 km2 in total (39.7% of the planned green belt as a whole). In the following three years, however, only 8.62 km2 of this land was ‘turned into green’, while another 11.16 km2 were expropriated by BMG for land businesses and infrastructure construction (Beijing Municipal Committee of Urban Planning, 1999). On the other hand, the area of farmland and vegetable plots in this area decreased significantly between 1993 and 1999 (down from 130 km2 to 61.82 km2), and a majority of this decline can be explained by the development of real estate projects (ibid). In this same process, 1.33 million square metres of residential houses were built and sold. The green belt was not “really green,” but became a part of the city’s urbanisation process and turned out to be a “really expensive” area to live in.

These outcomes made clear to municipal officials the potential values of land plots in the planned green belt area. From 2000 to 2003, another set of policies were proposed by BMG to enhance its ‘land businesses’. The “General Headquarter for Building Beijing’s green belt” was established in 2000, headed by then-Mayor Mr. Liu Qi (BMG 2000). In 2002, the “General Headquarter” commanded that “related townships and villages are strictly forbidden to attract any investments for land development in the Green Belt” (BMG 2002). “All construction land plots,” they said, “that have not been used in the Green Belt area should principally be expropriated by BMG before any kinds of land transactions” (ibid). BMG’s ambition of controlling more land resources was further practiced by proposing the second green belt in 2003 (with a total area of 1,620 km2, see the dark green area in Figure 1) and establishing a “land reservation mechanism” (tudi chubei) in the same year (BMG 2003). These policies together enabled BMG to gradually achieve and practice a monopoly of land supply at the city level (Beijing Municipal Bureau of Land Resources, 2011).

Figure 1, Yimin

Figure 1: A bird’s eye view of Beijing’s two green belts,  Source: BMCUP (2013). Note: (1) the purple line denotes the boundary of the city’s “core urban area”; (2) the light green area signifies the first green belt, proposed in 1958, while the dark green area indicates a small part of the second green belt, introduced in 2003; (3) the light yellow area around Tiananmen Square is set as the urban centre area (zhongxin chengqu), while the ten small yellow areas between first and second green belt are sub-centres (bianyuan zutuan).

There is a rising conflict between making green belts and making money through land. In the case of Sunhe (one of a number of areas I’ve studied; see Figure 2 below), landscape has lost out. The socialist-modernist vision of the urban landscape has been subordinated to capital flow. Plenty of proposals and projects are now put forward, by local government and real estate developers together, to promote land and housing businesses in the green belt. The label of green belt is retained more as a mask to legitimise these booming land businesses, and the interconnection between ecological discourses and political economic concerns looms large in this process.

Figure 2, Yimin

Figure 2. The invisible green belt in Sunhe  Source: photo by the author, 29/12/2014.Note: according to the master plan and regulatory detailed plan, this area should be a part of Beijing’s Second green belt. It is temporarily discarded because no privileged policies can be sought to run land businesses– but it will not take very long before such policies being figured out.

I now conclude with a lesson from China for Britain. Before arguing for the revising of green belts it would be wise to ask about the political and economic ambitions underlying these proposals. Who is raising them? Who benefits - will changes benefit present and future residents more than real estate developers? And, what other general effects on social justice can and should be identified? These questions are fundamental, and other issues such as (the control of) housing prices can be examined better when put into this political economic process.

References 

Beijing-Archives. 1958. No. 1-5-253: Report on the Preliminary Urban Plan of Beijing. edited by Beijing Archives. Beijing.

BMBLR. 2011. The plan for protecting and utilising land resources in the 12th-Five-Year-Plan peirod. published by Beijing Municipal Bureau of Land Resources. Beijing.

BMCUP. 1999. Survey report on the planned Green Belt area around Beijing's city centre. published by Beijing Municipal Committee of Urban Planning. Beijing.

BMCUP. 2013. Evaluation report on the implementation of Green Belt policies in Beijing's urban core area. published by Beijing Municipal Committee of Urban Planning. Beijing.

BMG. 1994. Ordinance on greening the planned Green Belt area. published by Beijing Municipal Government. Beijing.

BMG. 2000. Ordinance on speeding up the construction of Green Belt. published by Beijing Municipal Government. Beijing.

BMG. 2002. Announcement on making unified arrangement of remaining construction land plots in the Green Belt area. published by Beijing Municipal Government. Beijing.

BMG. 2003. Ordinance on speeding up the construction of the Second Green Belt. published by Beijing Municipal Government. Beijing.

Chen, Gan. 1996. Rethinking Beijing: a memoir [Jinghua Daisilu]. Beijing: Beijing Academy of Urban Planning and Design.

14 April 2016: Landscape Planning and the Green Belt 

When it comes to the Metropolitan Green Belt, the question of landscape enhancement is inevitable. We turned to the Landscape Institute to understand some of the views on the relationship between Green Belt and landscape.

We identified three broad areas to consider if we want to make the most of the landscapes in the Metropolitan Green Belt.

First, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) does not seem to be adapted to deal effectively with landscapes in Green Belt boundaries. We can find several reasons behind this, including:

  • There are different Green Belts in different parts of the country. Therefore, having a national policy on Green Belts does not allow for the differentiation of the specific needs some Green Belts have. For instance, if it is true that cities such as Oxford or Cambridge are historic cities, where purpose 4: “to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns” has clear implications for landscape. However, for London it is a crude tool that seeks almost exclusively to limit the outward growth of the city.
  • Another reason why the NPPF is not adapted to landscape enhancement is that landscape and biodiversity are not mentioned in the 5 purposes of the Green Belts. Even if these are present in other parts of the NPPF, they would tend to weigh less when conducting green belt reviews, which will then focus mainly on spatial planning policy.

Second, there is the question of structures that allow for joined-up thinking and management in the Green Belt. Understanding the NPPF and planning for better landscapes in the Green Belt cannot work without the appropriate leadership. This could take the appearance of a joint committee along a growth corridor. Such an organization would be useful to set a strategy for the short term and the long term and to understand what areas are to be developed to tackle the South East housing crisis. Colne Valley Park exemplifies the complexity of a multi-ownership model from which lessons might be learned.

Finally, funding and training. Again, it would be useful to look at models that have worked. Lee Valley is a successful funding/governance model, but its particular situation makes it difficult to reproduce. More generally, finding a model that would work for the next 50 years is important as landscape planning requires consistency. This raises questions about different mechanisms, such as:

  • The potential of a Green Belt levy on development in former green belt to fund improvements in remaining green belt.
  • The need for better environmental expertise in Local Authorities.  

10 March 2016 Workshop 4: Infrastructure and land value

This was a particularly timely event given various announcements on infrastructure, most recently the Budget announcement on Crossrail 2. The potential of transportation to help deliver new housing should not be minimized. According to TfL, 85% of housing delivered since 2010 is within 1km of a rail station. From this perspective, increasing transportation provision seems fundamental to delivering more housing. There are several ways, transport can be improved: increasing the frequencies of the trains, creating new stations along the already existing lines or increasing connectivity.

In developing a number of transport schemes, TfL has looked at the potential for investment in transport infrastructure to unlock development potential across London. Whilst both the NPPF and the London Plan strongly protect the Greenbelt from development it is an option that the LSE HEIF project believes is worth considering in order to meet the long term development needs of London. The Outer London Commission’s current review of growth options for London also raises the question of Green Belt reviews, both inside and outside London.

One option would be to keep doing what we currently do: encroach slowly but surely on the Green Belt with sporadic Green Belt reviews. If this is unpopular yet politically acceptable, it is not efficient and does not appear to serve the interests of the Green Belt landscapes. Another way would be to take a more strategic approach and, here, new transport infrastructure could be a useful way to focus the attention of different interested parties.

Were we to develop Green Belt land, a key question is to how any benefit could be maximised? This is a particular issue of interest in relation to transport corridors where one important aspect could be to capture the land value uplift created by new transport connections. There is a long history of seeking to capture uplift and is a subject the Outer London Commission returns to, again, as part of its recent consideration of growth options for London. The Metropolitan Green Belt (MGB) has particular characteristics, because with restrictions on its development use, the current value should be low and so there should be opportunities for significant uplift to be captured longer term. However, it is known that developers hold a number of options on sites in the MGB that speculate on the land’s future value. Therefore, to maximise returns, new mechanisms or powers would be required which would allow for a greater gain share between the public and private sector in both the acquisition and development of such sites. This could include a system that calculates the proportion of land value uplift that can be attributed to infrastructure investment and the re-designation of land this allows.  

Another consideration was density, how much land could/should we seek to deliver near to transport hubs. Higher densities could help make most efficient use of the sensitive and finite release of Green Belt land as well as support a complete range of facilities and reduce the need for non-commuting journeys. But we would need to ensure that the potential benefits of higher density are not offset by poor living spaces including limited internal space standards. We discussed whether new homes in or near Green Belt would increase dramatically journeys made by car. Building new housing near to public transport may help discourage car use for home to work commutes. But transportation patterns are much more complicated than just the “home-job” commute (only 25% of the trips). And at the household level this is even more complicated - where a household comprises more than one person. Multi-person households may have very different individual patterns of travel to work and even where one person’s journey is serviced by public transport another’s might be best served by car.

Crossrail 1 has sometimes been criticised for adding to stations in the Green Belt where housing cannot be developed easily in response to better transport connections. We asked if Crossrail 2 might be used as a negotiating tool to demand greater housing delivery (in or out of Green Belt) and there is a strong indication from the National Infrastructure Commission that this is the case. We were reminded that infrastructure investment was also driven by capacity requirements in the existing network.

4 March 2016: Key Facts on the Metropolitan Green Belt

General numbers

Surface area: 516,000 hectares – bigger than Trinidad and Tobago. In comparison, the Greater London Built-up Area is 173,700 hectares.

MGB Scales

68 local authorities and 8 counties are partly covered by the Metropolitan Green Belt.

 

The Metropolitan Green Belt and London

22% of Greater London is Green Belt but only 6.8% of the Metropolitan Green Belt is located in Greater London. This means that 93.2% of the Metropolitan Green Belt is located outside of London boundary, making it an important governance matter.

 

18 London Boroughs are covered by the Metropolitan Green Belt.

 

Composition of the Metropolitan Green Belt

There is are significant differences between the percentages of the Green Belt in London and the Metropolitan Green Belt as a whole:

Metropolitan Green Belt

In London

In total

Developed

2%

8%

Agricultural

59%

57%

Nature conservation

13%

5%

 

Sources

Green Belts: A Green Future, CPRE and Natural England, 2010.

Key London Figures, Greenspace Information for Greater London, 2015.  

The Green Belt: A Place for Londoners, London First, QUOD and SERC, 2015.

11 February 2016 Workshop 3: Garden cities & urban extensions

Workshop three on garden cities and urban extensions

Garden cities and urban extensions: Workshop 3 blog entry

If some land in the existing Metropolitan Green Belt were to be developed one option would be to follow a garden city model. Garden cities are very much linked to the concept of green belt. Ebenezer Howard, in his book Garden Cities of To-morrow, described a green belt that would provide productive spaces and would also maintain separation between garden cities. As well as providing a familiar and visually acceptable form of development the garden city model also provides an economic model which we will pick up on later in the project.

Most of you would probably know this diagram:

Diagram

But what is a garden city? The TCPA, founded by Ebenezer Howard, gives this definition “A Garden City is a holistically planned new settlement which enhances the natural environment and offers high-quality affordable housing and locally accessible work in beautiful, healthy and sociable communities.” In practice, the difference between a garden city and an urban extension is ambiguous. Nevertheless, we can identify elements that contribute to successful developments.

The TCPA have looked at Best Practice in Urban Extensions and New Settlements.Some of these include the urban extensions, garden cities and new towns that currently exist, or are being built, around London. These include a new development at Wixam in Bedfordshire and South Woodham Ferrers. The TCPA identified seven factors for successful outcomes:

 

  1. The need for regional and sub-regional planning rather than national specification
  2. Twenty-year time horizons
  3. The linked new settlement
  4. The need for comprehensive land assembly
  5. The need for a specialised team
  6. The need for consensus
  7. The need for upfront investment

 

New developments 

In the workshop Nicholas Falk, co-funder of URBED, outlined six principles:

1. Urban priority: build at least 60% of homes in urban areas

2. Green field resource: plan positively for elsewhere

3. Positive planning: link development with infrastructure

4. Sustainable development: major schemes should produce environmental benefits

5. Funding: ‘land value uplift’ should support local infrastructure eg community trusts

6. Tools for the job: we should learn from other countries 

He gave example of proposals for Oxford where emphasis was placed on the benefits of development including better public transport. This led to a discussion of financing including the possibilities of bonds and the potential for ongoing revenue through, for example, park and ride schemes. One lesson from the past is the need for an agreement to value green belt land at agricultural values and to be able to draw down land when required. This is a prerequisite for capturing uplift once infrastructure has been put in place. This and other possibilities, such as Community Land Trusts, could make development in the Metropolitan Green Belt more acceptable.

28 January 2016 Workshop 2: Methods of review and their outcomes

Blog post – Workshop 2: Green Belt reviews and their outcomes 

For our second workshop, we wanted to look at a more practical way of understanding planning in the green belt. Due to the lack of guidance from the government, green belt assessments and green belt boundary reviews are currently the only way for local authorities to define a strategy on their green belt within their area. The objective of this workshop was to look at how green belt reviews are created and how they can influence change in the Metropolitan Green Belt.

Two presentations were given by ARUP and GL Hearn. The experts from ARUP explained their methods of reviewing the green belt. These methods have evolved through the years and need to be adapted to each area studied. The point of a green belt review is not per se to decrease the amount of green belt land within an area. In fact, a green belt review can also conclude that no change is necessary or that the green belt should be expanded.

ARUP bases its methodology on the 5 purposes of the NPPF and also looks at other forms of guidance to inform its strategy. Their review is done in two stages, each of them having several steps in which they assess the characteristics of each parcel against the NPPF purposes. This pure form of assessment, if as partial as possible, has its limits: it doesn’t take into account the needs and pressures for housing and infrastructure, i.e. the exact reasons why the review was ordered. 

GL Hearn based their presentation on their project ‘Mega Planning, Beyond 2050 – MegaPlan for a MegaCity’ selected as a winning idea by the New Ideas for Housing competition by the New London Architecture. Their idea is to propose a long term strategy for housing in London. They created the concept of “Edge Land”, which is green belt land inside the M25 boundaries. In order to alleviate the housing crisis, they estimated that less than 4% of this Edge Land would be necessary to release. Green Belt reviews would be needed to define which Edge Land to look at. The risk is however to have a very London-centric model, with a lack of governance between local authorities.

The discussion highlighted several hazy notions from planning documents: what is a town? When is history? Many participants expressed the need to base reviews on a wider area but when looking at London and its green belt, what exactly is wide or small? However important these difficulties are, the main limitation to a strategic and coherent green belt review remains the lack of duty to cooperate (and agree) between local authorities.

21 January 2016 Workshop 1: Purpose and means

What's in a name?

First workshop exploring purposes of the Metropolitan Green Belt

Our first workshop on the purpose and means of the Metropolitan Green Belt was held on Thursday 21st in the afternoon. Among the attendees were many academics, planning organisations, urban think tanks and consultancies, and the CPRE.  

The goals of this workshop was to question the purposes of the Green Belt and to look at other ways we might achieve these purposes.

Let’s recap. The green belt purposes are defined by the Government in the NPPF:

  • 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. 

What’s in a name? One justification for the green belt is the need to prevent sprawl. But what exactly is sprawl? One definition might be that it is the sort of development that we don’t like. Rather, we might think more in terms of planned and unplanned development. We could set out criteria for good development and judge proposed development against these. There can be better and worse development but a catch all term like sprawl is unhelpful. 

What’s in a name? As a belt it holds the city in. But for many the term green belt is wrong. It suggests a restrictive purpose reflected in the NPPF. Refocusing the purposes of the green belt might go hand in hand with a change in its form. If we were to focus more on giving people access to countryside we might look more favourably at green wedges or a green web rather than a green belt. 

What’s in a name? The green belt is immediately recognised. Planning tools are not easily recognised by the public. Most members of the public could not probably say much about SHLAAs or SHMAs or London’s density matrix. But many people know what the green belt is. Or do they? Are people too attached to the concept of green belt without knowing what it really is? In order to see what it is like, we need a large scale review to understand better what is actually out there. Some of it is green rolling countryside but some of it is poor quality land. We might, in time, find resources to improve it as open land, but where the location is right we might also consider building on some of it. 

What’s in a name? We all know where London is…on a map. But London’s influences stretches over a far greater area. In thinking through the contemporary city we need to pay attention to patterns of mobility that have changed dramatically since the green belt was instituted. It was set up when there were steam trains and far fewer cars and no motorway network. Of course the very point of a green belt is to be stable and to resist change. But given the massive changes in London since the green belt was instituted, it’s time to ask if the green belt can be adapted better to meet contemporary demands for access to housing and work.

3 December 2015 Official launch event

LSE Green Belt project | Official launch blog entry

Last Thursday saw the official launch of the 21st Century Metropolitan Green Belt project. A number of opinion formers were present - some in favour of the conservation of the Belt, others questioning its utility. There was general agreement that now is an important time to debate the Metropolitan Green Belt (MGB).

The meeting was divided into three presentations followed by discussions. First was Paul Cheshire (LSE) who noted that 65% of the Greater London area is green; so why do we always imagine that London is made of concrete? He called for a strategic review of the MGB. This review should pay attention to the price signals that indicate economic inefficiencies of the MGB. He also pointed out unintended consequences of the MGB including “exclusionary zoning” and underuse of already-built infrastructure.

Transportation and social infrastructure were at the core of Barney Stringer’s presentation (QUOD). He highlighted the importance of having the right combination of infrastructure to make a place work properly. Focused on moving the debate forward, Stringer asked the questions: “Can MGB release help make better use of infrastructure” and “What can new housing do for infrastructure?” suggesting that much-needed infrastructure such as the High Speed Two could, in part, be financed by new development.

Our third presenter, Ian Gordon (LSE), drew on a draft report from the Outer London Commission to state five elements we need for substantial progress:

  1. A shared understanding of the problem;
  2. A sense of equity in engagement with the issue;
  3. A model of reform offering a stable long term path of change;
  4. Deals for accepting substantial increase complementary infrastructure;
  5. Some leadership with credible power to commit.

The discussion moved beyond the typical two-sided debate pro and against Metropolitan Green Belt, raising many questions that are yet to be addressed. As some focused on technical issues such as the efficiency of density, others explained the importance of keeping democracy at the centre of the debate. John Lett (GLA) reminded us of the complexity of increasing housing delivery. Many existing permissions to build in London are not developed. Given this, it does not follow that the release of more land would necessarily increase housing supply in the short term. He also highlighted the political realities of MGB review. On a positive note, we considered some examples of how cities can relate to the countryside in a different way to London - including Copenhagen’s ‘finger plan’ style of development.

For more information follow the links below and elsewhere on our site:

On Paul Cheshire’s price signals:
Cheshire, P. (2014) “Turning Houses into Gold: the Failure of British Planning”, CentrePiece, Spring 2014, 5pp.

On Barney Stringer’s infrastructure description:

“Green Belt – what is it exactly?”, audio from February 2015.

On Ian Gordon’s 5 elements of progress:

OLC (2015) “Draft 5th Report – towards more effective arrangements for coordinating strategic policy and infrastructure investment across the Wider South East”.

Presentations:

Project launch event presentation: The Green Belt: The price we pay, Paul Cheschire

Paul Cheschire presented at our official project launch. He discussed perceived myths on the purposes of a green belt and offered alternative interpretations of the Green Belt as a possible to site to build new houses to help solve the housing crisis.

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Project launch event presentation: Securing Regional Buy-in for Reform, Ian Gordon

Ian Gordon presented at our official project launch. He discussed five credible requirements for substantial progress and the Outer London Commission report which suggests the possibility of a Mayoral led strategic review of GB inside of London.

 

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