Max Farrell is a Partner at Farrells, internationally renowned architects with offices in London, Hong Kong and Shanghai. An expert in public affairs and urban planning, he was Project Leader for the Farrell Review, commissioned by the UK government, which made sixty recommendations spanning education, design, cultural heritage and architecture policy. He is Chair of the Civic Voice Design Awards and on the Steering Group for the London National Park City Campaign.

Not all of the green belt is working for us.
We need a more radical approach.

The quality of landscape and ecological diversity of London, which set it apart from other world cities, have come about as a direct result of man-made interventions.1See Farrell, T. (2015). Biodivercity. London Essays. December 2015 (Green issue). Retrieved from: http://essays.centreforlondon.org/issues/green/biodivercity There is now a campaign to make London the world’s first National Park City, which we at Farrells enthusiastically support. Its premise is that we need to improve the accessibility and integration of our green and wild spaces so that they can be used to their full potential for education, recreation, healthy living, and food production, as well as to ensure the preservation of natural habitats.

The green belt has played a positive role in shaping the growth of our capital city since its existence was guaranteed by legislation over 60 years ago, powerfully protecting the countryside from urban sprawl and helping retain the character and vitality of the city. In 1995, further policies were introduced, aimed at providing more attractive and recreational landscapes; retaining farming and forestry; and improving damaged and derelict land.2See point 1.6 in Department for Communities and Local Government (1995, amended 2001). Planning Policy Guidance 2: Green Belts. Retrieved from: www.cambridge.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/rd-gov-120.pdf The natural capital contained in green belt land is often underestimated or simply not understood. The ecosystem services it provides, including potential for flood mitigation and food production, will become even more significant as the population grows and the threat of climate change becomes more profound for all of us living on this small island.

Over the years, there has been discussion as to whether we need to use a small percentage of green belt land to build a large percentage of the housing we so desperately need. The debate has been a binary one. The majority of Londoners, and, as a result, the majority of politicians, consider the area designated green belt sacrosanct. Developers, conversely, argue that parts of the green belt are poor-quality land – and that where there is close proximity to transport connections, it should be released to build housing.

What is not widely understood is that much of the green belt land is not merely poor quality, it is actually highly damaging to our environment. As a result of the fertilisers used in modern methods of agriculture, the water we drink in London has to be piped in from as far away as Wales and the Lake District and blended with the more contaminated water from the south east in order to reach regulatory standards. This is hugely costly, and defies logic.

The widespread assumption is that we are preserving the green belt to improve the environment and our quality of life, yet in practice the opposite is true. I have even heard it said that an acre of car park is better for the environment than an acre of the green belt on which fertilisers are used.

Agricultural intensification affects water quality through soil management, including fertiliser application and the release into water of other chemicals like pest­icides; and by the erosion of soil, which is washed off from farmland. In the UK, it is estimated that around 60 per cent of nitrates in bodies of water and 75 per cent of the sediments polluting water have derived from farming.

I would like to argue for a more proactive approach to planning. In 2009, the Labour government established the criteria for creating large-scale housing developments that would be designated “eco towns”.  These included a minimum of 30 per cent affordable housing, 40 per cent green space, one job per household, and 50 per cent shift from car to accessible public transport, walking or cycling. As is often the way, the policies were scrapped when a new government came to power – in this case, only a year later. The one surviving project for which the eco-town principles were specifically kept in place was the scheme that we, at Farrells, have masterplanned at NW Bicester, now under construction and due to provide 6,000 zero-carbon homes.

We have found that these kinds of positive planning policies can help facilitate high-quality development. If, as many people have argued, we have to look at releasing, say, 3 per cent of the green belt for new housing, how could we use the planning system so that the net effect would be the increased quality and productivity of the remainder?

One way would be to apply rules similar to those used to create social benefits, such as affordable housing or transport improvements, which are enforced through section 106 contributions.

What if developers were asked to ensure that, for every acre of green belt developed, another five acres of low-quality and environmentally harmful green belt were converted into cleaner agricultural land or high-quality green space for leisure and recreation?

Land that is currently detrimental to the environment would have to be upgraded and replaced with multi-functional green infrastructure – orchards, grazing land, nature reserves and recreation space, for example. New developments would contribute to the landscape, rather than detracting from it.

Significant landscape improvements would go hand-in-hand with mixed-use developments of new communities. Clearly, the devil would be in the detail, and complex land ownerships, combined with objections from existing communities, would undeniably make it difficult to achieve. But we have to do something, and brownfield land alone cannot provide the answer, given that we need to more than double our rate of housebuilding. The prioritising of quality over quantity in the green belt is a particularly persuasive approach, considering that the quantities of land we are talking about are so small as a proportion of the green belt as a whole.

At the same time, there should be an understanding that only land close to transport corridors should be considered for development. In this way, we could make more use of land by building at higher densities – with apartments and terraced housing – as opposed to low density development, which is less sustainable and leads to the kind of urban sprawl that the green belt has been so good at preventing.

With the advent of electric-powered vehicles, we will be able to reclaim a good deal of land along existing motorways, which will become far cleaner and less noisy. (In the same way, clean rail has revolutionised our ability to build on and above railway infrastructure.) The key to generating support for mixed-use development along transport corridors will be the commitment to improve the quality and accessibility of the landscape in between – the green spokes, if you like. London is well served by the Chilterns, the Cotswolds and the South Downs, and we at Farrells are continuing to make the case for the Thames Gateway to be redesignated the Thames Estuary Park.

Ebenezer Howard, in his proposals for a Garden City, believed that five-sixths of the land allocated for settlement should be open landscape, retained for agriculture, recreation and other landscape infrastructure such as water conservation and treatment. So in a way these proposals would remain true to his original vision, through a more pragmatic and contemporary approach. Another key part of his Garden City proposals, not fully realised, was for control of the surrounding landscape to be given to the community. With the creation of Local Management Partnerships or Community Trusts to create a wider vision for the landscape and so future-proof it, this idea is now gaining momentum.

The green belt should contribute more to healthy lifestyles, not simply be a barrier that creates pockets of property value and separates communities. It should be an active landscape, putting health at the heart of new neighbourhoods, towns and villages. Future-proofing our existing and new communities for the health and care challenges of this new century is a vision promoted by NHS England in its Healthy New Towns programme; and in NW Bicester, we have designed landscapes with the aim of preventing illness and keeping people independent.

With a positive, landscape-led design approach we can also use development to mitigate flood risk, create permeable areas, store water on-site naturally, and create woodland or permaculture assets of value for biodiversity and recreation. We need a holistic “landscape first” approach that brings together landowners, developers, agencies, government and insurance providers. We have tried, for example, to put the landscape first in our own proposals for Dissington Garden Village in Northumberland, providing upstream flood attenuation for the surrounding areas of flood risk.

Arguments promoting natural capital need to be overlaid with the kind of strategic planning principles that Ebenezer Howard would, I think, have approved of. We currently face a housing crisis, in which owning a home is becoming an unachievable goal for many, while the private rented market is also becoming unaffordable. We have to be more creative and more courageous in tackling the green belt.

Notes   [ + ]

1. See Farrell, T. (2015). Biodivercity. London Essays. December 2015 (Green issue). Retrieved from: http://essays.centreforlondon.org/issues/green/biodivercity
2. See point 1.6 in Department for Communities and Local Government (1995, amended 2001). Planning Policy Guidance 2: Green Belts. Retrieved from: www.cambridge.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/rd-gov-120.pdf