In 2001, an English farmer called Robert Fidler built himself a new home in the Metropolitan Green Belt, an area of land around London where development is strictly limited. The house mimicked the form of a castle, with crenellations, ramparts and even a cannon. Despite its faux-medieval design inspirations, Mr Fidler’s house also adopted a more twentieth century military tactic in the form of camouflage. His perceived enemies weren’t hordes of soldiers but local planning officers who he attempted to deceive by hiding the house behind a 12 metre high pile of hay bales.
Mr Fidler’s plan was to remove the bales after four years, believing that after this period planning officers would have to deem the structure legal and allow him to live happily ever after. The local council did not agree and, many years later, the battle over Mr. Fidler’s castle continues, potentially ending only in the European Court of Human Rights. The well-known proverb that an Englishman’s home is his castle apparently doesn’t apply in the Metropolitan Green Belt.
75 years ago this year, a parliamentary act enabled London councils, for the first time, to protect land from development by designating it as ‘Metropolitan Green Belt’ (MGB). This apparently simple gesture, which aimed to limit and direct the growth of the city, led to the creation of a ring which continues to define not only London’s planning policy and growth, but also how the city is perceived, used and imagined. The result is a legislative space of exclusion, one that is defined by what it prevents rather than what it contains.
The MGB is larger than the city it was designed to restrict. Its paradoxical spatial quality – defined by what it isn’t rather than what it is – has not stopped it becoming an ideological battleground in which the future of our cities, and indeed the future growth and character of the UK, is fought over. Preservationist narratives of the green belt portray it as sacred ground, a rural idyll untouched by human hands, whilst for pro-development lobbyists and planning reformers it is fallow land and a necessary release valve for the city.
Despite this surrounding rhetoric, a central paradox of the MGB is that although it has been scrupulously mapped, researched and analysed in relation to potential development, it has never been scrutinised as a territory in its own right. We know next to nothing about its economy, its spatial character, or its value(s). Few Londoners could to tell you where it begins or ends, unless that is they are contesting a particular development site or planning application. But the territory demarcated by the green belt is not empty; indeed it frequently functions as a social twilight zone for opportunistic, illegal, unofficial or otherwise off-grid activity, as well as being a home to essential city infrastructure and man-made landscapes. All of which makes it far from untouched or unspoilt.
As far back as the 17th century, Gerrard Winstanley and the ‘Diggers’ occupied St George’s Hill in Surrey (now central green belt, and a golf course) to protest parliamentary enclosure and the removal of land from common use. More recently, the green belt hosted hundreds of illegal raves in the acid house era of the late 1980s, notably including the 25,000-strong occupation of land in Effingham in Surrey and the legendary Raindance in the grounds of Berwick Manor, Rainham.
At the scale of infrastructure, Heathrow Airport is an island in a sea of green belt land, as are the majority of the city’s water reservoirs, vast areas of leisure space like Epping Forest, and any number of golf courses. Spaces such as the artificial and highly engineered surfaces of golf course question the meaning of developed and undeveloped land.
The idea of the green belt, which has always neglected the quality of the land in favour of what it prevents, dates back to the early twentieth century, and its roots can be found in the radical urban planning ideas of Geddes, Howard and other garden city pioneers. The ‘unplanned’ developments of interwar Britain (whether speculator’s suburb, roadside ribbon development or plotland) were a major cause for concern for architects, planners and authors of the 1920s and 1930s, among them Patrick Abercrombie (co-creator of the MGB), Clough Williams-Ellis (who built Portmeirion, a town of his own design, on a site of natural beauty in Wales and then wrote books decrying the despoiling of the countryside) and E. M. Forster, whose pageant play ‘England’s Pleasant Land’ called for a nationalised planning system to contain cities and control development.
In 1933, Raymond Unwin, masterplanner of Letchworth Garden City, proposed a ‘Green Girdle’ for London. But he imagined that such an idea would only be possible by the public sector buying up the necessary land, not through the wielding of political or legal power. Ironically, as a result of this, Unwin’s girdle was significantly narrower (and tighter) than the green belt that eventually materialised, something made possible by the new planning powers of the postwar era.
Designed alongside the National Health Service and the Welfare State as part of Britain’s social-democratic project, and sold as a collective vision for London’s future development, the MGB in its early days achieved an impressive political feat; that of marrying the broadly socialist ambitions of the Town and Country Planning Association (improving life in the inner cities) with the conservative-leaning ambitions of organisations like the Council for the Preservation of Rural England. In ‘Controlling London’s Growth: Building the Great Wen’ (1963), Donald Foley wrote that: ‘while the Green Belt concept had the support of those seeking outdoor recreational opportunities for London residents… the scales may well have been tipped by the sympathetic advocacy of a conservative class which has traditionally respected a country gentleman, landed-estate pattern of living combined with an elite responsibility for guardianship of the English countryside.’ This political tension continues to influence the life of the green belt and the rhetoric that surrounds it.
Today, the MGB is increasingly represented not as a work of design but as a crudely enforced constraint on development. On the back of the current UK government’s pro-growth agenda, the belt is shrinking through the country, with an area the size of the London Borough of Hounslow estimated to be built on over the coming 20 years. In the face of increasing pressure on the government to find a solution to the UK’s housing crisis, influential right-wing think tank the Policy Exchange have proposed allowing developers to pay local residents to accept building on the green belt.
To contribute to this re-evaluation our postgraduate architecture students at the Royal College of Art will be working collectively to systematically understand, for the first time since its creation, what the green belt is, how it is used, whose interests it serves and whose it limits. This research will attempt to counter the dumbly binary rhetoric that surrounds the green belt, seeing it neither as land ripe for exploitation by developers nor as a sacrosanct romantic idyll.
The work will also speculate on the role of law, in the form of state control, on spatial planning. Despite its contradictions, the MGB stands as one of the most ambitious achievements of post war social democracy. As such, it presents a large and obstructive target for a contemporary ideology of free-market liberalism. Our aim will be to re-establish the green belt as a work of design, from the scale of building to the scale of national policy.