If you've ever wondered precisely where the Green Belt is, Alasdair Rae has made a map.
Click through and you can scrutinise all of England's protected rings, not just around London but Bristol, Birmingham, Nottingham and Newcastle too, to name but a few. It's fascinating to explore, and full of "well, I never realised"s. Thanks Alasdair.
The Green Belt, you'll remember, is a planning tool designed to check unrestricted sprawl, encourage building on brownfield sites and assist in safeguarding the countryside. Without the Green Belt we'd have more houses but a less green and pleasant country, so it's a fine balancing act.
London's Green Belt covers over a million acres from Bedfordshire to the Sussex border, in some places up to 35 miles from the capital. But it also spills inside the Greater London boundary. By bashing the data I can calculate what proportion of each London borough is Green Belt land.
Over half the land in Havering and Bromley is Green Belt, a lot of this agricultural. Almost half of Hillingdon is Green Belt too, with Enfield and Redbridge closer to one-third. Ealing, Newham and Haringey have very little Green Belt land, Brent and Merton none, because they don't reach the edge of London. The Green Belt was introduced before Greater London was established, so none of what's now Inner London is Green Belt but 28% of Outer London is. You wouldn't want to build on most of that 28%. You might want to build on some of it.
To explore what the Green Belt means for London I've taken a 15 mile eastbound bus journey across town from Tottenham Hale to Harold Hill (123 → 66 → 174) through unexpectedly many fingers of unbuildable green.
The closest patch of Green Belt to central London is along the River Lea around Tottenham Hale. It includes all of what's now the Walthamstow Wetlands, plus Tottenham Marshes and Markfield Park. It's mostly water so you wouldn't want to build here anyway. Walthamstow Marshes are not included, but land doesn't have to be Green Belt to be safe from development.
To show the power of the Green Belt in action, look alongside the River Lea just north of Tottenham Lock on Ferry Lane. Until a few years ago this splinter of land was a working environment, and would have been designated industrial in the 1950s so dodged Green Belt status. Today it's being redeveloped as a long thin line of unexpectedly tall flats, their footprint unable to extend into the protected zone, and architecturally at odds to the neighbouring cluster closer to the station. This eyesore is to be called Hale Wharf, and the developers have airbrushed a fairground carousel into the artist's impression to try to disguise how ugly it looks. The Green Belt stretches upriver from here all the way to Ware and Bishop's Stortford.
Heading east the next strand of Green Belt hangs down the far side of Walthamstow along the border between Waltham Forest and Redbridge towards Wanstead Flats. There's a very good reason why this strip is protected and that's because it's officially Epping Forest, so belongs to the City of London. But it's not entirely safe from destruction because here the age-old woodland has been despoiled by a mammoth roundabout courtesy of the North Circular, and what looks like a buttercup meadow is really the top of a covered reservoir. The Forest creates a very effective green barrier elsewhere, but the Waterworks Roundabout is a ghastly scar.
And the River Roding's turned out worse. You wouldn't build along its immediate floodplain anyway, but this corridor of undeveloped Green Belt proved irresistible when the M11 was being built and so is now mostly concrete viaducts and dual carriageway. Charlie Brown's Roundabout may sound cute (it's named after a pub landlord, not the Peanuts character), but the motorway and North Circular have devoured this part of the Roding's valley wholly and completely.
I had to switch buses at Gants Hill to reach the next bit of Green Belt, alongside Eastern Avenue beyond Newbury Park. A ridiculously large area of arable fields and scrubland survives to the north of the A12, purely because it hadn't yet been built on when the Green Belt was established so can't be touched. That said, King George Hospital got shoehorned into a tongue of land to the south of the main road at Little Heath in the 1990s, because building hospitals is OK. I'm not a fan of building on the Green Belt but these two square miles of undistinguished flat land, not so far from Crossrail, could safely be sacrificed to build tens of thousands of badly needed homes.
Marks Gate is such a sacrifice, a late Fifties estate built just before legislation would have made it impossible. At the northern tip of Barking and Dagenham it's surrounded on three sides by Green Belt, much of it scrappy scrubby carbooty wastes, entirely unlike the bucolic greenery most people might envisage. The A12 ploughs on through the middle of grassy mounds, golf courses and fields of crops, without a single bus stop for over a mile because there's no point in stopping because there's nothing here. There could be something here, should London's housing problem ever require something of significance, but instead drivers on one arterial road get to see some nice trees for a minute or two and that's about the only benefit.
Switching buses again, this time in Romford, the Green Belt makes its next appearance in Gidea Park. This time it's all about golf courses, one to the north of Eastern Avenue and another to the south providing a green buffer that most local people never use. Further north is pretty parkland and woodland and wildflower meadow and even hills, then glorious rolling Essex, so rightly protected, but mid-city golf courses always feel like such a terrible waste.
And finally, on the outer reaches of Harold Hill, the proper Green Belt boundary kicks in. A canopy of green leaves rises above the rooftops in Dagnam Park Drive, but you can't get to the trees themselves because nobody said the Green Belt had to be accessible. One cul-de-sac ends with a sign saying watch out for deer, then a fence, then a sports ground... then the M25, and then it's Green Belt all the way to Chelmsford. The Harold Hill estate was completed in 1958 and is a vast sprawling example of what happens when there isn't a Green Belt - the countryside is lost forever but tens of thousands of people have a home. It is, by design, where London stops.