David Kynaston

Ever decreasing circles

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

‘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.

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