We should be debating an appropriate redefinition of the interface between town and country

Ben Derbyshire

We urgently need to put in place the structures that would enable a world city of London’s status and size to organise and meet its own needs.

The starting point would be the recognition that the footprint of the capital extends far beyond its presently defined boundaries. As has been revealed in recent debates at The London Society on this topic, allowing the widely acknowledged success of the green belt to become an excuse for inaction is not helpful. By way of an illustration of this conflict, Surrey’s Campaign to Protect Rural England’s 10-point manifesto for the past election has as its top two priorities:

1) Protect the green belt and other countryside and green spaces in Surrey from inappropriate development.
2) Oppose excessive and unsustainable house building – especially where demand arises from outside the county.

Is it reasonable to exclude the demand for housing from outsiders when unquestionably the much smaller population of Surrey rely heavily on London for other aspects of their lives, and not least for employment? We fail to challenge the conflation of policies to protect the natural environment with nimbyism at our peril. The confusion creates a taboo which makes it so much harder to develop an inspiring vision for how Londoners and their neighbours can share the natural and economic wealth that surrounds them.

Such a vision was hinted at by Professor Peter Bishop of UCL in his contribution to a London Society debate on 5 February 2015. The relationship between London and the green belt, the GLA and the home counties should not be seen in terms of a polarised debate between city and country dwellers on whether to build homes in the green belt or to prevent this, come what may. Bishop argued that there is surely a way that we can both protect and enhance the green belt as one of the country’s (rare) planning successes, at the same time as meeting the housing and other needs of the capital.

London has a duty to offset the environmental impact of its growing population

As engineer Alan Baxter pointed out at the London Society debate on the future of the Green Belt, London’s phenomenal economic success generates all kinds of challenging demands apart from the commonly expressed requirements for housing and transport infrastructure: leisure, recreation,biodiversity, animal and plant husbandry, health, and psychological wellbeing can all be obtained from our relationship with the green belt if we protect it and invest in it appropriately.

The question is how to think of the built and unbuilt footprint of the capital in such a way as to enhance the sustainable wellbeing of humankind and the natural environment at the same time.

We should thus reaffirm our commitment to protect and enhance the Green Belt with a new charter that enables investment in its natural resources. The CPRE and other protagonists are apt to view criticism of the quality of countryside as a Trojan horse for development interests. But in any event it’s not acceptable to put up with the examples of rural degradation that are often cited as reasons for doing away with it: the scruffy fields of rusty containers, the monocultural agri-business, the failing golf courses.

London has a duty to offset the environmental impact of its growing population. We must invest in biodiversity to bring back the stag beetles, hawk moths, hedgehogs and other species whose populations have collapsed during my lifetime. At the same time we should harness the opportunity for human well-being by improving access to and appreciation of the natural environment. An audit of the capacity of London’s unbuilt land would reveal different degrees of suitability for environmental enhancement.

The London Society undertook such an exercise almost a century ago and published its conclusions in London of the Future, under the editorship of Sir Aston Webb in 1921. 

In David Barclay Niven’s chapter, we read: “On the inner edge of this belt the ragged fringe of London could be neatly finished off with groups of new and seemly buildings — particularly where the great arterial roads cut across the green and enter London — both officially and actually. As it is, the town spills itself untidily and indefinitely out along the main roads, making a dismal trailing-off transition that is barely complete before the first ‘free town’ is reached. The London Society has prepared a detailed map showing how this great, green mantle might yet be thrown protestingly about the capital — the satellite towns and garden cities clinging about its outer hem.”

Achieving a negligible carbon footprint demands design that encourages collective behaviour, sharing in the creation and consumption of resources and the disposal of waste. This principle of engagement impacts on the design of the new development in such a way as to facilitate social interaction between residents, the landscape which is subject to communal husbandry and the relationship with the surrounding countryside, in a hugely improved connectivity between the built environment with green fingers and cycleways as the physical manifestation of a new relationship between people and the natural environment.

So we have been thinking for a century about improving the relationship between London’s built footprint and its rural context for a century, and since long before town and country planning was even invented.  Now that we have had the benefit of planning for more than half that time, now that we understand so much more about the need to minimise and mitigate our impact on the environment, and now that London’s population is growing at the rate of 300 people every day - surely we should be debating an appropriate redefinition of the interface between town and country. 

Of course we should examine whether a new boundary should be a concentric enlargement, alignment with transport infrastructure to create green wedges, or isolated islands within a green sea – why would we not?

Ben Derbyshire is managing partner of HTA Design