Is an answer to the housing crisis near New Addington?

The last road in London is the inspiration and the theme of much of Outskirts, the latest book from John Grindrod, who grew up in New Addington

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.

The benefits of being close to the Green Belt are balanced by the “social apartheid” it can create, according to John Grindrod in  Outskirts

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.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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1 Response to Is an answer to the housing crisis near New Addington?

  1. Lewis White says:

    Thank you, Inside Croydon, for the above article.

    As someone born and brought up in the Surrey Green Belt, just to the South of Croydon, and now living in Coulsdon, I have been living in or with a view over the beautiful Green Belt we enjoy in our area. Are there any finer landscapes in the world, than the downlands of Farthing Downs and Happy Valley, Banstead woods and the upper Chipstead Valley? Well, there are of course many lovely landscapes , but our local landscapes must be among them… and they are easily accessible to thousands of London people.

    This makes the London Green Belt so precious. Without the designation of the Metropolitan Green Belt ( a remarkable political consensus), the suburban tide of semis and bungalows would have overwhelmed the majority of the North Downs in our area, losing forever the beauty of the unique landscape we can still appreciate as a result of the Green belt designation.

    We need new homes, but we don’t need the U.S. solution—- urban sprawl. It just eats up the countryside, leaving cities like Detroit with a derelict centre.
    So, how and where to build the new homes we undoubtedly need?.

    First, we are already seeing in places in Croydon and adjacent areas of Surrey, the renewal of suburbs and towns, with the demolition and replacement of single dwellings on very large plots, in places like South Sutton, Caterham and Purley, with small housing developments of houses or flats. accommodating many more. I for one, subject to the quality of architectural design, density, landscaping, tree preservation and off street parking, fully support this process.

    There are scores of such developments –and there are hundreds of people who are happily living in these developments. Many of the new homes are within walking distance of shops, or are served by bus routes, so these residents do not have to use their cars all the time to get into their local shopping centre or into Croydon or London. So less pollution, which can’t be bad.

    Within the Green Belt itself, there are towns and villages where this kind of renewal is also happening. My own view is that this must make the local shopping cent res more viable- -towns like Reigate, Caterham and Horley are local examples. There is still a huge amount of scope for this. I welcome anything that creates living settlements, with viable businesses and shops, pubs, schools, and churches. Creating more homes on the same land, as long as it is not over-dense in nature, must make sense in more ways than one.

    Is there a need to build on the Green belt as well?.

    I think the answer must be ….
    Build ON ? — NO!
    Build IN ? — YES — BUT only in very special cases, and under certain very special circumstances. where there is a landscape and settlement design logic , where the countryside will not be cut up, and farming not compromised. Design and landscape is critical.

    BUT — what we surely don’t need, in ANY circumstance, is 1960 style housing estates of “little boxes on the hillside” — or anywhere in fact.

    The problem with many developments, not just of the 60’s, but particularly of the inter-war years, 1918-39, is their huge extent, monotonous form and social make-up. We ended up with huge council estates, and speculative private estates of terraced and semis, much of very poor design. The vast majority of this development was very simple in concept–straight streets of 2 storey houses imposed on the open countryside without any care for fitting in with the existing rural landscape or existing villages.

    There is a modern movement for creating garden cities and garden suburbs. There were several built in Hertfordshire, still a very lovely, rural county, but none in Surrey, in the pre and post WW2 era.

    I think there could well be scope for one or two such developments in Surrey south of the M 25, and maybe garden suburbs or village extensions in the Croydon / Sutton / Epsom and Ewell/ Tandridge/ Reigate and Banstead areas within the M25, but they would need to be justified, mixed in character, not “covering the ground with houses”.

    The housing debate must be about much more than building so many thousand “units” which is meaningless, as a 1 bed flat is a unit, as is a 4 bed 5 bath exec home.

    In my view, based on years of experiencing the diverse parts of our local area, we must be concerned about renewing our existing towns and villages with a “Mix”, of houses and flats, both small and large and medium sized, starter homes, old persons’ developments and places for small businesses, where things are made, and repaired, as well as people sleep.

    Sustainable, living towns and villages,and renewed suburbs– — It is a really exciting concept, and not easy to achieve. Down with dormitory towns- up with the living, working settlement! That includes leisure– bike trails, woodland walks, pony rides as well as cappucino culture!.

    Thanks again, Inside Croydon, for stimulating this debate-and to John Grindod for his timely book. I hope I can come to the event on the 26th July.

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