A More Natural Capital: Good green growth in London - developing with nature in mind

Director of Conservation Mathew Frith explores how the next Mayor of London can harness development for nature's recovery and reduce its environmentally-damaging impacts.

London led the way of British cities in establishing a framework for protecting its ecological assets over 30 years ago.  Since that time, a network of over 1600 Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (aka ‘wildlife sites’) have been afforded levels of protection and cover 19% of the capital. Together with the green spaces that form the Metropolitan Green Belt and Metropolitan Open Land (MOL), rivers, parks, allotments and over 3.2 million gardens, London is almost half green & blue.  This breadth of greenery not only affords the living space for over 15,000 species of fauna, flora and fungi we share our city with, it importantly gives us the lungs that make us breathe easier, softens the harsh bustle of city life, and will help to shield us from some of the adverse impacts of a changing climate.

Despite the great steps made by the Mayors, GLA and many organisations and individuals to further the quantity and quality of our natural assets over the past 20 years, there are significant challenges ahead.  Not only are we witnessing the advent of an extinction and climate crisis, we are also a city set to grow to be the home of 10 million people by 2027, and 11 million by 2050.  Whether it’s needs driven, or demand-led, London will be building many thousands of new homes and supporting infrastructure[1]; the key, as ever, is to ensure this is of the right type, in the right places and as environmentally benign as possible.

We know that high quality, nature-driven, developments can be built.  However, the building and planning systems are still rigged against nature, and the demands for space are in danger of either putting pressure on the Green Belt and MOL (by encouraging local authorities to de-designate), or encouraging the in-fill of smaller green spaces within existing urban and suburban districts.  The accumulative loss of small greenspaces, by a thousand cuts, will have dramatic long-term impacts. We know, for example, that 3,000 hectares of greenery disappeared from London’s gardens between 1998-2007, little of which was from development.[2] But since then the need to make our city more resilient against surface water flooding, periods of high heat stress and drought, and the continuing decline of many wildlife species dependent on a well-connected network of biodiverse greenspaces, is now much more apparent.

Covid-19 has shown the importance of access to open spaces for our well-being, but there is a growing tendency for very tall buildings to increasingly dominate districts. Over 500 have either received assent or in the process of seeking permission.  These are likely to be built in tight clusters, having a significant impact on shade and nighttime lighting.[3]  Even if they provide greenspace, much of this will receive limited amounts of sunshine, affecting their ecological viability and our enjoyment of such spaces.  And at night clusters of tall well-lit buildings will disorientate bats and migrating birds.  We want to see a new Mayor take action on both these aspects.

We require a step change in leadership and drive within the parameters of the Mayoral powers, to make sure the city’s development is ecologically sensitive, committed to zero-carbon, climate resilient, and contributes to societal well-being. We want to see the next Mayor to show that they will deliver ‘good green growth’. The commitments to ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’ (BNG) already being adopted by some local authorities and developers (and likely to be a mandatory requirement for most developments by 2023) are welcome, but they will require proper scrutiny to ensure that the often complex calculations are not misused and translate into tangible viable benefits for nature.  The Urban Greening Factor, now a requirement under The London Plan (Policy G5), also needs to be more than a ‘box-ticking’ exercise if it is to deliver high quality greenery; both this and BNG require more skills and resources to aid local authorities and leadership from the Mayor to ensure good policy intent translates to best practice on the ground.

The Green Belt and MOL should continue to be protected. Importantly they present opportunities to create a ‘biodiversity booster belt’ around London’s fringes, and by adopting the Wildlife Trusts’ ‘Wildbelt’ policy the Mayor should seek to oppose all development proposals that would prevent land in future from assisting in nature’s recovery, including that adjacent to existing wildlife sites or that used for nature-friendly food production.  A nature recovery network that covers the whole city from the Square Mile to the rural fringes, that ensures skylarks and water voles thrive, and that every young person can see a butterfly or hear a bee buzz from their doorstep and school ground.  New developments have a role in helping to create this, and we want the new Mayor to actively support those of us already committed to this vision through leadership and enforcing his or her powers to do so.

This blog was originally published as part of a series exploring the issues in the 'A More Natural Capital' manifesto. Click here or visit the dedicated twitter feed @AMoreNaturalCap. You can also learn more about the leading candidates' stance on environmental issues at the Mayoral Environmental Debate on Wednesday 21st April.

[1] Recognising that empty homes and vacant office buildings have a role to meet these needs.

[2] See London Wildlife Trust London; Garden City?

[3] See New London Architecture London’s Tall Building Survey 2020