For some, the Green Belt may seem to be just open land or a kind of edge land, caught between the suburban boundary and deep countryside.
From fringe to fork – food and the Green Belt
Others, as our guide to Green Belt myths tells us, believe it has little environmental value and so is ripe to build on.
This, for starters, ignores its value as a green lung for people living in towns and cities: a source of cleaner, fresher air that people can escape to. Add to that the chance it offers for urban residents – 30 million or more - to experience nearby countryside and the green space it offers for walking, cycling, and myriad other activities - see Our Green Belt campaign website. And then there are unseen – and so usually undervalued - environmental benefits Green Belt land provides: for instance as a vital store for carbon, for filtering and absorbing rainwater that can help to prevent flooding in urban areas.
Then there is the wildlife. I grew up in the Green Belt but was startled to discover that it includes more than 200,000 hectares of woodland, a fifth of our ancient woodland stock, a third of all our Local Nature Reserves and 89,000 hectares of nationally important sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs). But you might also be surprised to know that two-thirds of all Green Belt land is farmed; and it begins to make sense when you consider how close it is to city markets, which traditionally would have been supplied from their local patch of countryside, now often in the Green Belt.
In fact, around two-thirds of Green Belt is still farmed – not so different from the rest of the country (71%) - and much of the land is fertile with soil ideal for fruit, vegetables and other crops: 16.2% is in the top two grades for quality 1 or 2 (grade 1 is scarce nationally). Agriculture in the Green Belt is as varied as you can imagine: from large-scale, commercial glasshouses in the Lea Valley north of London growing salad crops for the city and the national market, to community farms in Sheffield working with disabled people and those who are unemployed to provide for the community on their doorstep.
CPRE research shows everything from dairy, eggs, game, poultry, pork and beef to fruit, veg and honey is supplied into nearby towns and cities from farms in the Green Belt. And rising interest in local food – a recent YouGov poll found nearly 80% of people thought it fairly to very important – means we could imagine the Green Belt again as a source of wonderful locally-produced and sustainable food that could connect us emotionally and viscerally – literally through our stomachs - to our nearby countryside and its character.
A sense of what is possible comes from work CPRE supported that looked at a mixture of local food producers in the urban fringe, from family owned businesses, to co-operatives and social enterprises, all based in the Green Belt:
- Whirlow Hall Farm (Sheffield)
- Sims Hill (Bristol)
- Essington Fruit Farm (Wolverhampton)
- Grovewood Farm Dairy (Birmingham)
- Glebelands City Growers (Manchester)
- Unicorn Grocery (Manchester)
- Shabden Park Farm (Surrey)
- Organic Lea (Epping Forest, East London)
These businesses continue to thrive, selling food ranging across meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables directly to the public, some through farm shops or cafés on site, or even both. Some are Community Supported Agriculture schemes, recruiting members and volunteers who can get their hands dirty helping grow, produce and harvest food. But all, as do most local food businesses, give people the chance to get to know the people who produce their food and the realities of where food comes from - and to appreciate the effort that goes into it. In turn, their nearby town opens up a vital and potentially vast market for them.
And the research showed that it wasn’t just food that these enterprises provide but other valuable services, too, including educational visits for school children on farming and food, recreation and nature conservation. They show that we can have successful businesses in the Green Belt that make the most of its accessibility and build a connection through food to the local community.
These businesses and community enterprises have been innovative and have succeeded, but there is no doubt much greater potential for the Green Belt (and land on other urban fringes) to be better used and valued to produce sustainable local food. There are various barriers to the growth of this kind of enterprise. A key one is access to land. No doubt some landowners are reluctant to lease their land or invest in community supported agriculture in case future changes to Green Belt boundaries enable it to go for housing or other development and to sell for a phenomenal price above its farmland value. Sometimes too it can be difficult to erect the new buildings that might be needed to support local food businesses.
So we have recommended a number of ways that public and private bodies could help the growth of local food in the Green Belt:
- The Government needs to encourage local authorities in its National Planning Policy Framework to promote and support the growth of sustainable farming, especially for food local markets, in Green Belt areas.
- The Government should also strengthen protection for the best quality farm land for producing food and the evidence we have that identifies it.
- Local councils need to build a partnership with other local agencies to develop a Local Food Strategy and Action Plan to put sustainable local food supply at the heart of their thinking and a range of policies. There are good Green Belt examples in Brighton and Hove or Bath and North East Somerset. Take a look at the Sustainable Food Cities website for more.
We also need to find ways to encourage and support new local community enterprises: not only to produce fantastic food at fair prices but other benefits we’ve illustrated above such as green exercise, building community and a connection to the land and where food comes from. We can encourage existing farmers to link to their community by offering land for allotments or visits through Open Farm Sunday or selling produce locally. These Green Belt models might also help us find ways to encourage new entrants into farming and horticulture, as local food can start at a smaller scale, sell direct and have lower start-up costs.
But this week we’re celebrating how local food contributes to our Green Belt. I hope you can offer more examples and you might find inspiration in those CPRE Avonside is uncovering with its Local Food in the Green Belt project. See the piece about this by Sophie Spencer last month. As she reminded us, on top of its many other benefits, Green Belt simply provides the opportunity for a market garden that can deliver good, local food.
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