The expanses of land protected to prevent the sprawl of British cities are actually full of buildings
An architecture of the green belt. Come on, that’s a stretch, isn’t it? Like trying to pinpoint a geology of amusement parks or a psychology of looking out of windows. Is there anything to go on other than mere proximity? And yet, there is something weirdly consistent about it, even if sometimes that consistent factor is sheer oddness.
Green belts were the result of an interwar panic, off the back of another: the ‘homes for heroes’ campaign. This had encouraged thousands of private developments of mock-Tudor semis and faux Arts and Crafts manors to spring up along roads and rail lines out of every major city. Some 860,000 homes were built in rural England between 1919 and 1939. The resulting Metro-land suburbs are what the green belt is not, but up and down the country they are consistently its nearest neighbours, a lace trim to these green doilies on which our cities sit.
These days Britain’s green belts cover 13 per cent of land in England, 2 per cent in Scotland and 16 in Northern Ireland. Cities from Aberdeen to London, Belfast to Newcastle are surrounded by them, blunt stoppers to prevent sprawl and to preserve the character of a town. The thing to remember about green belt is it’s not all that green, or, indeed often a belt. It can be scratty strips of land, bits of abdandoned development, or busy, heavily used infrastructure: sewage treatment works, power stations, refineries and the like.
Infrastructure was a word barely known before the 1950s. Its use has grown with the creation of the rationalised connecting tissue of modern life: electricity and telephone wires, fresh-water pipes, our network of roads, railways and airports. It summons up images of politicians in hi-vis jackets and hard hats, nodding unconvincingly as construction processes are explained by management who look equally ill-at-ease in fluoro bibs. It also hints at something hidden – below – like infrared, undetectable to the naked eye.
Just as green belts aren’t necessarily green, so infrastructure isn’t always hidden. The pylons running between power station and town. Water treatment works whose smell announces them long before you catch a glimpse. And, above all, roads. Despite its inherent greyness, the M25, like many motorways, is itself classified as green belt. The service stations, concrete junctions and miles of tarmac are engineering feats rather than architecture. And their existence has been echoed by other artificial markers, more primitive still. Gravel pits, which feed our hunger to build, and landfill sites, stuffed with the excreta of those new homes.
All this infrastructure has created another green belt phenomenon. Business parks, like those on the fringes of Birmingham. Gaudy GRP sheds, synthetic Tescobethan barns, smoked-glass Mies holes. Here chain-link fences have been bested by the grappling hooks of the marauding countryside – bindweed and ivy – fronds stealthily throttling CCTV cameras and hostile car park signage. Agriculture is, of course, the ancient business of our green belts, fields long since rationalised by mechanical and chemical methods. Glasshouses and solar farms glint like fields of flint in the flat lands of Essex and Sussex. And out-of-town shopping centres form some of our most familiar green belt experiences. With acres of car parking surrounding these citadels of sheds, they are like huge, crude 3D printed plans of a future city. Suburbs of hatchbacks huddle around the great monoliths of Aldi, B&Q and Toys ‘R’ Us, with a green belt of hastily planted saplings and inoffensive shrubs on the bark-floored perimeter, separating the parking from the world beyond.
Impermanence is a way of life in the green belt. Take the chalets and static caravans of Naish, a holiday park in Highcliffe, Dorset. These dark wood, flat-roofed memorials to 1970s Modernist fun had been allowed in part because they would not last. But it wasn’t local politics that would bring about their downfall. Instead the raw sea air has worked away on their flat roofs and wooden walls for decades. More pressing still, their clifftop site is itself eroding at an alarming rate. This stretch of green belt is rapidly disappearing into the sea; chalets, infrastructure and all.
Of course, impermanence was often not the desired result. One of my favourite green belt building projects was Fulmer Grange, built outside Slough in 1967. Here was a sturdy Brutalist college built by the Cement and Concrete Association in the grounds of an old house. Concrete Quarterly’s feature showed exciting pictures of the luxurious coffee lounge with its lofty columns of exposed concrete, the dining room with its board-marked concrete ceiling, and the exposed concrete walls of one of the 80 study bedrooms. It was a concrete paradise. It was also built without planning permission. In the end the college was allowed to keep their swanky new building, unlike so many others, who had to tear down their unplanned houses and, in some cases, castles. Instead, the economic slump of the 1970s and the backlash against Brutalism of the ’80s did for the college, and it closed in 1987.
Then there are more secretive structures, harder to locate or dispute. RAF Strike Command was built near High Wycombe in the 1970s beneath an artificial hillock disguised with mature trees. Built on the site of an older military bunker, this Tracy Island affair with its network of subterranean rooms and tunnels remains closed to the general public. Then, of course, there are the many bunkers scattered across the green belt, like the exposed concrete brutality of Epping Forest District Council Emergency Centre, one of hundreds of Cold War monuments slowly corroding through disuse. They might seem irrelevant, but English Heritage has now begun to champion these old bunkers as markers of our recent history.
Despite their heritage champions, these bunkers seem a world away from the rural jewels of the National Trust. Country houses like the Elizabethan extravagance of Knole House in Sevenoaks have been rescued for the nation. Grand homes in extensive grounds are a common feature to our green belts, though more typically they are now in use as hospitals and prisons, spas and conference venues. With little new building allowed, change of use of existing structures, be they barns or asylums, has become a green belt hallmark. In the executive dream of commutable country living, no farm outbuilding has been left unpimped, no village shop or post office left open or unconverted to domestic use.
What about those much-heralded advances in eco building? HTA’s zero-carbon homes and community centre at Hanham Hall near Bristol, for example. Using a wooden prefabrication system they perform well above modern insulation standards and feature in-built solar panels and rainwater harnessing. But estates like these are a bugger to get permission for, as housing falls short of the ‘very special circumstances’ dictated by the government as essential for new building in the green belt. Hanham Hall’s site, away from nearby towns and shops, gives it the feel of a stranded moon base rather than a model of sustainable living.
Our green belt is a conundrum. A seemingly straightforward policy to prevent urban sprawl has led to the absurd densification of villages within it and has left cities with a stubbornly inflexible set of options for urban growth. Yet within it lie some of the most curious buildings in Britain, ghosts of long-lost ways of life, thwarted plans and the secrets of a nation running out of places to hide them. Only by working out what is in the green belt can we best understand how to protect, enhance and adapt it for the future.
John Grindrod’s new book Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt is available now from Sceptre