STEVEN DOWNES reviews the latest book from an author with his roots firmly in the Green Belt outside Croydon
Patrick Abercrombie could be credited as the man who shaped modern Croydon.
It was Abercrombie who, in that wave of optimism as the union jack bunting was being unfurled after VE Day, had published The Greater London Plan, and within it enshrined the notion of a “green belt”. In a couple of thousand years’ of largely organic development of this city, there had never been much of a plan for London before except, perhaps, when Christopher Wren drew up a blueprint after the Great Fire. And even that was never wholly implemented. London had just, sort of, spread.
The old LCC had had a bash at a housing plan in the years after the First World War, suggesting zones for different trades and industries and ring roads and arterials that (mostly) never got built, but even that had few controls or what is now called planning guidance about it.
That’s how New Addington came about, and what prompted Abercrombie’s rant in his Plan. “Further development southwards from the built-up boundary of Croydon at Shirley must be stopped,” the soon-to-be Sir Patrick wrote.
“Addington hamlet itself with its church, the burial place of five Archbishops of Canterbury, is as yet unspoiled, although threatened by pre-war development near Featherbed and Lodge Lanes. The siting of the new estate is a regrettable example of what could happen under planning powers; a considerable distance from any work or railway station, with only bus transport to serve it, this project was approved and begun. It is now too late to call a halt to it completely, even though it is in a charming piece of green belt country.”
The use of lower case “g” and “b” shows how relatively new the notion of green belt was in 1945, an idea which had been raised in the years before the war. That noted architect Abercrombie, a colleague of Sir Edwin Lutyens, was so keen on the idea is probably explained by his 20-year stint as secretary of the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England.
His ideas for London’s post-war development, all contained within a ring of sacrosanct countryside to prevent urban sprawl, became known as the Abercrombie Plan. The Green Belt, enshrined into law in 1947, has become both a blessing and a curse, and the shape of New Addington, and Croydon, largely constrained since.
All of which is recounted in John Grindrod’s latest book, Outskirts, published today. Having grown up on the “outskirts of the outskirts”, in New Addington on what he calls “the last street in London”, this is an affectionate and sometimes quirky look at the phenomenon of the Green Belt, not from a building and architectural perspective, but in a very human dimension.
Grindrod’s first book, Concretopia, was a fan’s tribute to the towering blocks of the 1950s and 1960s and which had fascinated him in his Croydon youth. Outskirts is more about how the creation of “green girdles” around Britain’s towns and cities have impacted the way the country has developed over the past century.
That 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which contained the first Green Belt, was as much an act of nationalisation by the Attlee Government as their nationalisation of the coal, steel and railway industries. Peter Shepheard, an architect who worked on Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan, said as much to his son. While wealthy landowners retained the ownership of tracts of land, the Act was, according to Shepheard, the nationalisation of “… the right to develop it, so no one had a right [to], even though they owned it, without the consent of the community”.
This, of course, has created a dilemma of its own, and one which even today’s politicians, such as Gavin Barwell, have not managed to master. The Tory MP, when housing minister, was supposed to be delivering more homes, yet at the same time he has been actively campaigning against building homes in his own constituency when they may have encroached on protected sites. Why, Grindrod’s book even has a chapter title which contains the word “Nimby”.
Seventy years ago, the solution to the puzzle was 30 New Towns and garden cities, modern utopias where jobs and leisure facilities were built close to housing, so that these new settlements beyond the Green Belts would not become commuter dormitory towns.
Grindrod’s book also proffers another lesson from the past which might, if applied now, help to solve our current housing crisis. More than half of the homes built between 1945 and 1970 were council houses for rent. None of this “affordable homes” doublespeak nonsense, these were flats and houses built by councils rather than private developers, just as Grindrod’s home on Fairchilde Avenue was.
And so we are taken from housing policy to the human dimension. This is a deeply personal book, wonderfully written, in which Grindrod appears ambivalent about the first 30 years of his life on the New Addington estate, spent enduring what he calls the “social apartheid” of an isolated suburban town stuck like an atoll in the countryside.
Green Belt, and land with that other protected status, MOL, has been used by country-dwellers to delay, deter and block the building of housing in their “back yard”, with consequent growing social inequality. Surrey alone has space to accommodate 627 golf courses, yet the cost of housing in the squeezed south-east has risen relentlessly in the past 40 years, with developers making huge profits.
Meanwhile, sitting just there, but out of reach, untouchable, is Green Belt land – amounting to 13 per cent of the land area of England.
What Grindrod has done with Outskirts is take a point of view and, through his engaging writing, chart the current divide between town and country, expressing both sadness and anger at the end result. And somewhere within there, there’s a possible solution to the dilemma.
- Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt, by John Grindrod, Sceptre 368pp, £16.99
- John Grindrod will be giving a talk about his book, Outskirts, and signing copies at a Talking Inside Croydon event to be held on July 26. Booking details will be published on this website nearer the time
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