Never the one for serious educational tomes, I wasn’t convinced that a book about the Green Belt could really be an entertaining read. Nevertheless, John Grindrod’s study has received a plethora of excellent reviews and was shortlisted for the 2018 Wainwright Prize for UK travel and nature writing. I personally devoured it hungrily, such was its depth, candour, and frequently laugh outloud humour.
The author has form: his first book, Concretopia: A Journey around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain (2013) was a study of modernist architecture written for non-architects. Similarly, Outskirts is well researched, but the text is interwoven with Grindrod’s own back-story of growing up in New Addington, near Croydon (facing the Surrey Green Belt) and how the urban-rural fringe affected his family life, including giving a green outlet to his disabled mother, and inhibiting his claustrophobic brother. There are many social references to the 1960s and 70s, which perhaps defines the age and sets the context for how long we have been trying to circumnavigate the Green Belt.
The book is subtly divided into two. The first half, The sowing, draws evidence going back to the Elizabethan age, and features Octavia Hill’s social reforms, Patrick Abercrombie’s Campaign to Protect Rural England edicts and the manifestation of the present day Green Belt policy. The second half, The reaping, questions the actions of successive big-name Government ministers, the rise of NIMBYs, Robert Fidler’s hidden castle, and the influence of the Green Belt on the current housing crisis.
Outskirts picks up the pertinent points in the history of urban containment and the creation of the series of Green Belts across the country. Intertwined with Grindrod’s own reflections are compelling interviews with current stakeholders; these include Ian Tant (president-elect of the RT PI), who was able to furnish the research with his experiences, initially as a young Hertsmere planner secretly identifying potential Green Belt sites for housing, and later as a Barton Willmore consultant, advising volume house-builders of the huge risks when negotiating options for Green Belt land.
The most relatable point raised was that the Green Belt was never a policy to protect the quality of the landscape. Grindrod asserts that one of the things he likes about the Green Belt is that it protects the ugly ‘and sticks two fingers up to the narrative that all landscape should be pretty’. One of his most humorous segments finishes ‘there is no point telling the green belt to “cheer up love, it might never happen”, because it already has. 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 AON B or practise your Sid James act in front of a SSSI’. A very enjoyable read!