Friday, 13 March 2015

The problem with boundaries...the case of London's 'Green Belt'


Fontanile was divided from the "capital" by just such a stream, and for twenty years no one had seen so much water in it. Night had fallen, but Don Camillo paced nervously up and down the road leading along the bank. His nervousness did not pass until he heard the brakes of a big car. The car was full of policemen, and with their arrival Don Camillo went back to the rectory and hung his shotgun on the wall. After supper Peppone came to see him, looking very glum.

"Did you call the police?" he asked Don Camillo.

"Of course I did, after you staged that diversion at Case Nuove in order to have a free hand for your other mischief, yes, and after you cut the telephone and telegraph wires, too."

Peppone looked at him scornfully.

"You're a traitor!" he said. "You asked for foreign aid. A man without a country, that's what you are!"

I am slightly obsessed with the idea of the boundary - the line where one place turns into another place. It is the reason, for me at least, why geography and the concepts of geography are so important. And what we know is that the boundary isn't either permanent or necessarily clearly defined. Yet in our world this lack of permanence and fuzziness has to be set aside as we seek to set down the lines of boundaries.  Here's planner Andrew Lainton talking about whether London needs a 'Green Belt' review:

We can imagine how fraught the ‘wider South East’ meeting would be next week as these authorities would either say we are having to conduct a Green Belt review so should you, or for those outside the Green Belt like Aylesbury Vale would say why should we take all of any overspill caused by London’s historic failure to plan for enough homes if you don't look at policy options as well.

The discussion here is about several different sets of non-coterminous boundaries - some of which can be easily spotted on maps and others that are more nebulous and undefined. For the purpose of this discussion it doesn't matter whether we think London's 'Green Belt' needs reviewing merely that we understand how difficult such a review is to conduct because of those boundaries. Andrew Lainton has couched the problem in terms of the self-interest we'd expect from various parties to any discussion about the need for review. So authorities (Lainton gives the examples of Epping Forest and Dartford) that are outside the boundaries of Greater London but inside the boundaries of the London 'Green Belt' will take the view that the purpose of that 'Green Belt' outweighs London's need to find land to ease its growing demand for housing.

Hence the problem in the quote above - the example here is Aylesbury Vale but could equally have been Medway or Swale in Kent or Adur in Sussex. If the authorities outside London but inside London's 'Green Belt' win their argument then the search for sites (strategic or otherwise) moves beyond the 'Green Belt'. And such things are, as we discovered in Rochester, potential political timebombs.

This isn't an argument for trying to get coterminous boundaries because that is an utterly futile exercise. Some boundaries - 'travel-to-work areas, for example - cannot be set by fiat but are determined by the choices people make their lives. Other boundaries are matters of judgement - an example here might be the impact of moorland special protection areas where the answer to the question being asked so as to determine the zone's boundaries is not really known (those pesky birds won't stop still).

The traditional remedy for such disputes has been to get everyone around a table to look at the problem. All the various boundaries (I encountered a new sort today - the 'buffer zone' for a World Heritage Site) are set out, the problem is described and solutions are discussed. Some sort of process is needed to secure resolution - ideally this is unanimity but we could look for some sort of majority verdict or else (and this is most usual) a rules based system with a court as final arbiter. In the case above this is all possible because we are pretty confident that Dartford's armed forces aren't about to assault Bexley - if you're talking about the boundaries of Palestinian territory in the West Bank that sort of resolution remains possible.

Where such processes aren't possible (or a party is able to ignore the need to co-operate) the result can be pretty dysfunctional. Take the example of San Francisco - or rather the wider Bay Area and what we call 'Silicon Valley':

Development phobia in some areas means that concerns about traffic usually win out over housing. Red tape is an issue in all area cities. Beyond those obstacles, cities have yet to define local implementation strategies for new housing plans like Plan Bay Area. Developers are also wary of new government fees and missing out on chances to develop larger, single-family homes in Silicon Valley suburbs.

A failure by politicians, developers and employers to follow a comprehensive plan for bolstering Silicon Valley's housing supply has negative implications. Frustrated locals will continue paying more for less housing and sitting in traffic. Outside talent may balk at taking a job here for fear of putting themselves in the same plight.

Put simply, politicians running the counties making up 'Silicon Valley' are reluctant to zone for significant increases in housing because of fears from residents of those counties about the influx of new folk (even very well-paid new folk working in tech industries). The result is that those new folk end up in San Francisco where they squeeze out local populations, especially ethnic minority populations:

The affordability crisis is so extreme that many of those who rode into the Mission District on the first wave of gentrification, during the dotcom boom in the 90s, are now crying foul. Even they can’t afford the 2-bedroom apartment on Valencia Street renting for $11,500/month.[ii] They find themselves priced out of their lofts and community networks, by a whole new wave of highly paid tech workers who ride in on the Google bus every evening, driving rents and home prices to dizzying new heights.

Now London has yet to reach such a scale of problem (although paying £750,000 for an Edwardian townhouse in Hackney suggests we're getting there) but the lesson is that without the active co-operation of authorities within London's 'Green Belt' there is every prospect of the City's affordability crisis becoming an affordability catastrophe. As we all know, the solution lies within the planning system not with rent controls or narrow housing market interventions. And those discussions about the 'Green Belt' are central to that solution making comments like this decidedly unhelpful:

“We do not need to do a green belt review, we do not need to go outside of London. We believe we can meet our needs within London”.

Unless a wider solution - not necessarily new towns (or even 'garden cities') in could be a scaled and structured set of urban expansions - it put in place we will find the situation worsening further.

While part of me likes this idea as it means the location decisions of people and businesses move away from London there's a more fundamental problem - London's continuing success is absolutely central to the UK's success. And some of those location decisions might not be Bristol or Birmingham but Barcelona or Baltimore. The resolution of this discussion about the different boundaries around London and especially whether (or maybe where) in the 'Green Belt' land should be released for housing. I wish all involved well in this but am a little glad it's not me making the choices!


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