The Green Belt has an iconic status as one of the great successes of planning and preservation. But in the last year this sacred status has begun to be challenged more and more publicly, particularly in London.
The map shown here (which includes newly released data), is intended to put the debate into perspective, showing the Green Belt alongside London’s economic geography. You can click on the map for a more detailed version, and read more about it below.
But first some quick context. From its roots in the 1930s, as a reaction to the rapid interwar suburbanisation of London, the Metropolitan Green Belt began to be formalised in the 1950s. Today it covers over half a million hectares (more than three times the area of London itself), in 69 different local authorities, stretching 40 miles from central London. Overall green belts protect around 13% of all England’s land and the idea has been copied across the world.
This protection has proved pretty effective and enduring, with London’s outward spread halted, and instead surrounded by an area of relatively low housing and population growth. When the Coalition began reforming planning policy, the sanctity of green belts was regularly restated (although the press has sometimes struggled to differentiate green belt from green field).
The intention is to stop sprawl, and so unlike other protected designations it is based on location, rather than its intrinsic value for landscape, wildlife or amenity. As a result the Green Belt protects beauty spots and eyesores alike, in a vast swathe around the city. It is almost all private land, much of it inaccessible to the public, with horses and golfers getting a particularly generous share of the space.
Such concerns prompted writer Stephen Inwood to lament: “Children playing on London’s increasingly busy streets, and without most of the local parks that Abercrombie had promised, could console themselves with the thought that ten or fifteen miles away there was a belt of agricultural land that they would never be allowed to spoil”.
When the green belts were introduced, London’s population was falling, but now it is booming. In the last decade it has grown by a million people, equivalent to adding all of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast combined. The same again is forecast for the next decade, and a housing crisis is brewing.
LSE economist Paul Cheshire has called green belts a “sacred cow”, doing devastating damage to “societal fairness, housing affordability, the economic efficiency of our cities, even the environment”. The debate is growing over whether London should solve this crisis by build up, or out. In truth quite a lot of both may be needed.
About the map
The map shows central London’s growing concentration of employment in red, and the homes of its workforce in grey. Railways radiate in all directions, bringing in more people to London’s job market. And fitting tightly around all of this, to prevent further expansion, is the Green Belt.
I suspect many Londoners imagine the Green Belt to be a narrow band around the city (as indeed some of its earlier proponents envisaged), rather than the vast swathe shown by this map. One good reason for this misconception is that until the files were released a year ago (apparently by accident) there was no official map of the greenbelt. Fragments were defined in dozens of local plans, but the big picture was not available in electronic format and so effectively invisible to the public.
Of course different people will draw different conclusions from the same picture – either the Green Belt is strangling London’s success, or successfully containing its sprawl. I’ve tried in this map to show the greenbelt in the context of London’s economic geography, to inform the debate.
Note: The map uses newly-released census data on daytime population to show employment (after subtracting non-working age and non-working adults). It shows density, not absolute numbers (to minimise the boundary problem of different sized Census Output Areas), however this means the employment cluster at Heathrow does not show up – there are a lot of jobs there, but when spread across some particularly large Output Areas including runways and surrounding land, the apparent density is lower.