Can we grow food on the Green Belt?

London Talks Blog Post

by Zach Jenson

The Metropolitan Green Belt that surrounds London has always been host to some level of agricultural activity, but in recent years the discussion has intensified around how this land should be used, and whether increased food output should play a role. Is this the best use of the available land? If so, what is the most equitable and valuable way to do so? What kind of limitations of the Green Belt policy does this topic reveal? These questions and more were discussed in the second London Talk, Can we grow food on the Green Belt?

Created by the Green Belt Act of 1938, the Metropolitan Green Belt that surrounds London is bigger than many realise – about three times the area of London itself. While it’s often thought of today as a policy that was created primarily in the interest of conservation or green space, this is not actually true. In fact, the Act does little to direct the usage of land within the Green Belt, serving instead to simply block further development of the land and, by extension, limit urban sprawl. It is against this historical backdrop that our three presenters made the case for what a more proactive use of the Green Belt might look like, and why growing food does or does not best suit the current needs of London and its surroundings.

Our evening’s presenters included Dr Alan Mace of LSE, who has written extensively on the Green Belt, calling attention to issues like its unequal provision of social benefits and its contribution to the housing crisis. We were also joined by Paul Miner of the environmental pressure group Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), who has contributed to a number of publications on the Green Belt that argue for the economic and educational viability of increased agricultural use. Finally, we heard from Martin Stott of the Garden Organic charity, who made the case that, while farming is a valuable use of the Green Belt, a substantial reconsideration of relevant policy is needed first.

We began the night discussing the current unequal provision of green spaces and allotments within London, and the Green Belt’s limited ability to address this. Both in the Green Belt’s location (only easily accessible to Outer London boroughs) and its definition (only conceived to block development, not direct land usage), it does little to address this pervasive inequity. The speakers agreed that while the Green Belt is exciting in the potential – biodiversity, public green space, food education and local farming – it is greatly limited by the fact that most of its land is privately held.

We went on to discuss what successful farming in the green belt could look like, both now and in the future. Longitudinal research shows that local farm shops, where they exist, are well supported by their communities and show economic viability. These businesses were contrasted with other agricultural practices in the Green Belt such as rapeseed farming, which is not grown for local consumption but rather shipped away for processing and then redistributed nationally. The speakers largely agreed that, where farming was possible, it was better to focus on local availability and public good than it was to simply maximise production.

Finally, we discussed the need for a more radical reimagination of the Green Belt, both in regard to farming and beyond. Part of the impetus for this discussion was the recognition of the Green Belt’s unique status as an “orphan policy” – one that was conceived in conjunction with the now defunct New Towns Act of 1946. With no such policy in place to meet the scale of housing demand, the Green Belt contributes to a housing crisis that the government is struggling to address. With climate change, food security, and housing shortages considered by many to be a higher priority than containing sprawl, the original Green Belt legislation can come across as a simplistic tool in the face of a deeply complex set of issues. Furthermore, it was pointed out that the sprawl that the Green Belt was meant to prevent has in many cases simply been displaced, with far-flung communities routinely commuting across the Green Belt into London.

We concluded our evening on a series of related discussions from the audience. One attendee raised the point that new agricultural technologies such as vertical farming could radically alter our understanding of what kind and quantity of food the Green Belt could produce. Another proposed that land should only be released from the Green Belt for further development if the resulting uplift in land value could be effectively captured by the government and directed towards social programs. Another posited that international, industrial farming has already shifted British diets to such a degree that reclaiming the Green Belt for local food would require a larger cultural shift than many realise. Altogether, the evening was an active and engaged discussion that demonstrated how food in the Green Belt can in fact serve as a microcosm for a number of planning, housing, and conservation issues affecting Londoners today.

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