London’s secret sprawl

The Green Belt is not the verdant sward it pretends to be


For a while, I was contemplating buying the Last House in London. It appealed to me, the idea of living at the very edge of the city, as far north as it is possible to go, on the outskirts of High Barnet. But on closer inspection it turns out that it isn’t the edge of the city at all. Next to the house is a cemetery, then a paddock and stable, and a little further on a golf course. Then there are a couple of fields before you get to a pub, then the estate of Wrotham Park (where Altman filmed Gosford Park), then a gypsy caravan park, the M25 motorway, and the curious landscape of South Mimms, a village consumed by a motorway service station.

As in Hertfordshire, the same story unfolds all around London. Essex, Kent, Surrey, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire — all share the same fate of being simultaneously outside London but fundamentally shaped by it. The city has a fractal edge, creeping urbanity into the countryside, which conversely seeps tendrils of nature into the city. Yet our innate desire to see town and country as two separate realms means that at the edge of cities this landscape becomes a strange hinterland, a secretive fictive space. Development here is almost always ad hoc, piecemeal, a gradual process of urbanisation — a garden centre or golf course as a vanguard — with the occasional flurry of infrastructural activity, usually a new road, a moment if intensification, seeding new developments.


The rise of the Green Belt

Interwar planning dogma in the UK threw up the Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act 1938, designed to stop the untramelled growth of London into the country, to protect against urban sprawl. It arose after vigorous campaigning from the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, and carried with it the overtones of protecting the wealthy country folk, the landed gentry, from the great unwashed lumpenproletariat. The Green Belt became a politicised landscape, the buffer zone between the haves and have nots. It was a concept that was soon adopted by other metropolitan areas of Britain and then exported to the world. Iain Sinclair’s wonderful London Orbital describes a walk around the orbital M25 motorway that cuts through the green belt around London:

“By the time Londoners had seen their city bombed, riverside industries destroyed, they were ready to think of renewal, deportation to the end of the railway line, the jagged beginnings of farmland. Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan 1944 (published in 1945) still worked through concentric bands: the Inner Urban RIng (overworked, fire-damaged), the Suburban Ring (to which inner-city casualties would migrate), the green belt (ten miles beyond the edge of London), and the Outer Country Ring, which would extend to the boundary of the regional plan. Visionary maps, in muted Ben Nicholson colours, were produced. Lovely fold out abstractions. Proposals in soft grey, pale green, blue-silver river systems. But as always with the blood circuit of ring roads, the pastoral memory ring at the edge of things, at the limits of our toleration of noise and speed and grime. There must, said William Bull (in 1901) be ‘a green girdle around London’s Sphere … a circle of green sward and trees which would remain permanently inviolate’”.

Post WW2, with London and other urban areas ravaged by bomb damage and with a large displacement of people, a new vision of London arose to help ease the population pressure on the capital. It was led by Abercrombie’s 1943 County of London Plan, followed in 1944 by the Greater London Plan, and led to the New Towns Act of 1946, with it’s plan for the extensive enlargement or creation of a ring of towns around London within the Green Belt. Stevenage, Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield were the three designated towns in Hertfordshire.

Greater London Plan of 1944

The Green Belt keeps the size of London artificially restricted, and is part of the reason for London’s property debacle — as previously discussed — the supply of housing is constrained. London’s housing market is a pressure cooker waiting to explode.


Garden Cities of Yesterday and Tomorrow

New Towns, heavily inspired by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement, were conceived as places that would not be allowed to grow too big, and maintain a healthy relationship between Town and Country. Certainly Howard thought that Garden Cities could be self-sustaining communities, with just enough people to support a range of amenities, industry and employment. The Garden City concept is a powerful one, it allows anyone to visualise their own ideal blend of urban and rural life. So it’s no surprise to see it wheeled out regularly, from the flawed ecotowns boondoggle of the late 2000s in the UK, and more recently in the current Garden City competition (the Wolfson Economics Prize 2014)— sponsored by Next retail boss Simon Wolfson, and with the support of deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to build up to three, but with no sites identified. Smaller urban centres surrounded by unspoilt countryside sounds attractive, but inevitably, any town is plugged into an infrastructure larger than itself, and so there is a network of transport links, water and sewage systems, power lines and telecoms links that has grown up to meet the needs of these towns, and that carves the countryside up. Piecemeal development then creeps along this infrastructural armature.


The infrastructural city

This infrastructural life support system criss-crosses the green-belt, connecting the towns of Hertfordshire together and plugging them into the beating heart of London. Physically it also carves the landscape into a number of small, leftover spaces.

It is into these leftover space that urbanism seeps in, secret sprawl — the parasitic typologies of golf courses, garden centres, caravan parks, and those other things that spring up along transport interchanges, such as business parks, retail parks, travel hotels, distribution warehouses. The green belt seems in places to be little more than one or two fields that keep a satellite town — Bushey, Potters Bar, Broxbourne — from merging into the Great Wen of London.

The Green Belt, today — London Colney. (image ©Nigel Cox, used under Creative Commons licence)

The problem with the Green Belt is that it does nothing to really save the countryside from the encroachment of the city, and instead of presenting sprawl, actually encourages it. With the notional city’s edge official defined by the Green Belt, the actual city bleeds its fractal edge across the gap. Each New Town, Garden City and dormitory estate built is a node of attraction, drawing the city towards it. The green belt has become not a verdant sward of pastoral beauty but an interzone of pure infrastructure. Instead of resisting the growth of the city, and pretending that town and country are polar opposites, a new form of continuous urbanism is required, which can regard the whole of the South East of England as a field of varying urban/rural intensities. It requires a radical overhaul of planning policies across the counties surrounding London.

The Green Belt, a 76-year old piece of pre-WW2 planning legislation, has no place in the development of London as a modern global city.


An earlier version of this article first appeared as Stim and Dross in Hertfordshire on the Urban Tick website.