David Kynaston

Ever decreasing circles

It was originally designed to give the city healthy breathing space, but has it become dangerously restrictive?

Ever decreasing circles
Text settings

Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt

John Grindrod

Sceptre, pp. 368, £

‘The area’s isolation has given it a strong sense of community and independence,’ runs the Wikipedia entry on New Addington.

The presence of the library, youth clubs, leisure centre, shops, churches and street market enables locals to lead full lives in many ways. The Addington Community Association has provided an important hub for the community. It has been notable for its local gangs.

John Grindrod’s illuminating and enjoyable Outskirts is in part a memoir about growing up in New Addington, in part an intimate family history, and in part a history-cum-gazetteer of the green belt, along with a meditation on its uncertain future. My strong suspicion is that most Spectator readers, even if Londoners, barely know where New Addington is, let alone have been there. It is in fact a 1930s settlement, much expanded in the 1950s, that lies conveniently at the end of the tramline from Croydon and is in effect a hilltop town — albeit not quite a San Gimignano — almost wholly surrounded by fields, a.k.a. the green belt. ‘I grew up on the last road in London,’ is Grindrod’s opening gambit, and a glance at the map shows that he is not really exaggerating.

His previous book, Concretopia, was a fascinating, if for my taste too pro-modernist, historical tour of the rebuilding of postwar Britain, and here he takes us surefootedly through the protracted and often controversial story of the green belt’s origins and evolution. First comes Octavia Hill’s ringing statement of 1888, in an essay that coined the instantly resonant term ‘green belt’: ‘The need for quiet, the need for air, the need of exercise, and, I believe, the sight of sky and of things growing, seem human needs common to all men, and not to be dispensed with without grave loss.’

This is followed by the proselytising efforts of those anti-urban, pro-garden city pioneers Ebenezer Howard and Frederic Osborn; the patchy Metropolitan Green Belt of the 1930s; the dispersion-driven planners (Sir Patrick Abercrombie et al) of the 1940s and 1950s; the game-changing circular by Duncan Sandys in 1955, in effect directing local authorities to create green belts in order to ‘check the unrestricted growth of built-up areas’ and to ‘safeguard the surrounding countryside against further encroachment’; and the ensuing decades of frequent, bitter battles, even as green belts spread around most major conurbations.

It has been a rich, often contradictory history, closely bound up with images and assumptions about what kind of country England should be. ‘Boundless leisure, bounteous nature, timeless beauty,’ reflects Grindrod about ‘the most complex web of hopes and ideals’ that the green belt came to embody. ‘Things the green belt had never hoped to stand for, and could not possibly hope to protect or create.’

Quite so — and one of the great virtues of his account is that, tolerantly and unsentimentally, he gets us close up to the green belt as it actually is today. Predominantly farmland, yet also full of commuters; a land-grabbing plethora of golf courses (Grindrod is rather less tolerant here); and ‘strange small towns, landfill sites, abandoned military facilities, motorway service stations and follies’, not to mention being a favoured venue for dogging. Crucially, and attractively, he is no purist, robustly pointing out that whereas in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty there are de haut en bas aesthetic judgments involved, in the green belt the landscape can be ‘ugly, useless and barren’, but would still be more or less doing its job:

Towns have been built, pylons erected, residents have trampled it and dumped mattresses and burned out cars. If you want a pretty bit of skirt, go and wolf whistle at an AONB…

What lies ahead? As the housing crisis inexorably intensifies, especially in London and the south east, will the developers or the conservationists win? For myself, and I imagine like most people, I want somehow the best of both worlds. Ian Nairn (everyone’s hero) may in the 1960s have rightly called the green belt ‘a tourniquet which stops the bleeding but doesn’t heal the wound’. Yet half a century on I can’t bear the thought of it gradually disappearing, as in the past few years (to judge by the granting of planning permissions) it has shown unmistakable signs of starting to do; though at the same time, it is the truest, if least original, of clichés.

Grindrod himself (his days on the edge long behind him) adopts no doctrinaire position either way, instead wanting grown-up debate allied to give and take. He is not optimistic:

To city dwellers the green belt is tightening around our throats. To country folk we are ignorant barbarians, intent on its destruction. Once the green belt was a mechanism for trying to help us get along. Now it is the chief cause of antagonism.

All this would be enough to make Outskirts thoroughly worthwhile. But what truly lifts it is the personal element, above all Grindrod’s portrayal of family life. His father John (an HGV mechanic) and mother Marj moved with two sons from Battersea to New Addington in 1969, a year before the author was born. ‘Generally, as a family, we were very quiet,’ he recalls. ‘I sometimes suspected that, had we removed sitcoms and cats from the conversation, we would have barely spoken.’ The effect was to make such conversation as there was ‘a hall of mirrors, operating on so many layers of artifice and irony that any real content became impossible to decipher’.

Like most nuclear families, probably now as well as then, the Grindrods kept themselves tightly to themselves, a costive insularity typified — in those odd moments of communication — by a private vocabulary, notably the word ‘ticket’ to mean almost anything. ‘We were happy with our own language, even if between us — inside us — we couldn’t agree what these words actually meant.’ Historians of modern Britain still know dishearteningly little of what really went on behind the impenetrable walls of suburban domesticity; and though there is always the problem with any memoir of representativeness or otherwise, I for one found some of his passages revelatory.

I also found it impossible to resist making my own debut trip to New Addington. On a sunny Friday morning, first impressions were predictable enough: overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly working-class, a lot of seriously overweight people — the left behind, and all that. The rather battered looking shops on Central Parade —Vapepit, Captain Pawn, Bloomin’ Lovely Florist, Booze Bank, Favorite Chicken & Ribs, Beaches & Cream (a beauty parlour), not a reassuring Pret or Caffè Nero in sight — were similarly out of journalistic central casting.

Yet as I walked around and became acclimatised, it all seemed perfectly good-natured and harmonious (the gangs perhaps still in bed, or giving their teachers grief), with everyone apparently at ease in their own skins as they got on with their daily lives: in short, a world of its own, inhabited by like-minded people of similar background. Whether or not that adds up to the good society is of course another question. But a starting point for those who doubt it might be to acknowledge that the certainties of place, whether social or geographical, confer particular blessings.