It appears tranquil and verdant, but the green belt is a place of tension. A borderland between urban and rural, concrete and country; home to battles between developers and campaigners; middle class and working class.
It's the barrier where London ends and a sort-of-countryside begins, a green chastity belt hemming in the lascivious desires of the city to penetrate its surrounds.
Designed to prevent urban sprawl, the green belt is now being eyed up for development to relieve the pressure on London's dire housing situation. What does the future hold for this somewhat unglamorous part of British life?
Author John Grindrod, whose book Outskirts is an engrossing and well-researched ode to this liminal place, describes it as “like the way the British see ourselves: a little bit boring, not a country of great passions or self-expression. The story of the green belt is one of hedgerows, ramblers’ paths and farmers’ fields, not the dramatic landscapes of the Welsh national parks or the Highlands.”
In 1969, Grindrod’s parents moved from the Battersea slums to New Addington — just such a liminal place bordering the ‘concrete utopia’ of Croydon and the edges of Surrey and Kent. Growing up there in the 1970s, the estate’s uneasy situation became a metaphor for his own experience.
“It always felt like we were marooned there because of the way our house faced: on the edge of the estate, into the countryside; it was like feeling not part of the countryside, yet not part of the estate either,” he says. “We were caught between the two places.”
However, he and his sporty brother Paul loved the proximity of the countryside and would roam widely as children, exploring the fields and woods.
“One year, aged seven or eight, my brother was playing football and broke his arm. It was the start of the summer holidays and it meant he spent the holidays in a plaster cast.
“The week before school went back, he had the cast removed. Very excited, he came back from the hospital to meet his mates, waiting in the garden. They all rushed over the road to play, and he tripped over a tussock and broke his other arm. My dad hadn’t even got his shoes off, and just drove him straight back to hospital.”
This appreciation for being able to go out to the countryside so easily wasn’t shared by all the family. Because they were older, his brothers remembered their lives before New Addington, in the very urban realm of a block of flats in Battersea. The change was particularly traumatic for oldest brother, Ian, who became agoraphobic shortly after relocating.
“He has a very vivid memory of going into the field and being really excited, then suddenly becoming aware of how big the sky was, and the field, how much open space there was, the millions of grains on the heads of the wheat. He’d never experienced anything like it, and the enormous panorama overwhelmed him. He started to have a panic attack and has never been able to enjoy the countryside since.
“He finds it very hard going out at all. He told me the last time he went out to the field he got bitten by an adder.”
The green belt’s current incarnation seems like a modern concept. Founder of the National Trust Octavia Hill first coined the phrase in 1875, but it really took hold in the 1920s and '30s in response to the spread of estates of semi-detached homes from cities.
In fact, the idea has been around for centuries. It is described by Thomas More in Utopia, and similar schemes were described by Elizabeth I and Christopher Wren.
Today, 13% of England is designated green belt, much of which is for golf courses, but let’s not get into that here.
What’s more pressing is the role of this green girdle in London’s housing crisis. Its continued existence today raises the issue of to what extent we should be sacrificing adequate and affordable housing in order to maintain this rather unremarkable ring. The nettle and bramble-strewn dwelling of ramblers and brambles, doggers, abandoned bunkers, fly-tippers, and fields.
The problem we have is that we no longer have the big-picture visionaries who first plotted the demarcations of the green belt. Gone is London County Council’s architects’ department (Ruth Lang has written superbly about this).
“It won’t be the housing we need, it won’t be affordable homes, or places that are easily accessible."
Grindrod has great affection for that post-war era, the time of big planning and big ideas, when people felt they could solve problems. Now, he laments, people don’t feel like they can solve the issues. Without the strategic planners, we’re left with a green belt that no-one looks after as a whole, a place that no-one can make decisions about, such as where best to build on it.
“One of the problems is politicians have tended to not talk about the green belt because it’s a career-ender,” he explains. “They’ve pushed all the decisions to local authorities.
“But now councils have no money, they’re desperate for people to come in so they can raise revenues through higher populations. It means there will be a lot of bad building on the green belt.
“Development will take place where they can get away with it, rather than where it’s needed.
“It won’t be the housing we need, it won’t be affordable homes, or places that are easily accessible. They’ll be expensive places, built in places middle class people won’t protest about, and where you need a car to drive to the nearest shops because you can’t get public transport.”
John Grindrod will be talking about his book at an event for Inside Croydon on 26 July 2017 from 7pm, at St Andrew’s Church, Southbridge Road, CR0 1AG. Tickets are free, but must be booked. Details here.
Outskirts is available now.