London’s Ecology - Future ecological planning

  • Details
  • Transcript
  • Audio
  • Downloads
  • Extra Reading

Carolyn Harrison, Emeritus Professor of Geography, University College London.

Download Transcript

Future Ecological Planning for London

Professor Carolyn Harrison

My starting premise is this: like most urban areas in the UK, the London of today owes little to a planned approach to development – least of all to an approach that takes account of environmental resources, environmental quality and environmental enhancement.

Nevertheless there are signs that things are changing not least because the planning system itself is changing, our understanding of environmental change itself is improving, and ecological thinking has begun to penetrate how plans are made - if not implemented.

My second premise is that to think ecologically is to place humanity withinthe physical and natural systems that together make up our global world. Understood in this way, the purpose of ecological planning is to make collective choices about the states of the environment we want, prevent breaches of environmental constraints and make adaptations possible when such constraints have unfortunately been breached – as for example, in addressing the consequences of global climate change and rising sea levels.

In the lecture I aim first to examine very briefly some of the consequences of 'unplanned growth' for the environment and ecology of London.

Then to turn to the 23rd Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) 2002 as a framework for examining how future planning might be better served by placing the environment and human environment relations at the centre of the planning system – an ecological approach.

I then move on to offer some observations on how far the recommendations of the Royal Commission have been taken forward in the new planning arrangements for London under the Greater London Authority (GLA).
Finally in the light of this analysis I make some suggestions about future ecological planning.

London's unplanned growth: More by fortune than design

Following the planner Michael Hebbert's study of London 1998: the following slides reveal how London grew over the period 1850 –1940, growth largely fuelled by what Hebbert calls the 'the blind muddle of market economies' and a refusal of London's governments and Londoners to adopt pattern-led forms of development and re-development. Not for London the tree lined boulevards of Haussman's 19th century Paris or the more recent Grand designs of La Defence; nor the grid like street networks of North American cities and their Parkway systems.

The exception in terms of plan-led development of course is the Metropolitan Green Belt (MGB) – initiated in the inter-war period by land purchases by London County Council and finally coming to fruition in the years following Abercrombie's Greater London Plan of 1945. Here the environment as landscape was used to shape city form and London became encircled (more or less) by a belt of agricultural land several miles wide. Development stopped at the inner boundary and new towns and settlements beyond the Green Belt became the focus of further growth.

The inner boundary of the MGB has held over time – save for a few incursions – the M25 being the most obvious one - while successive county councils around London have attempted to expand the outer one.

For some observers, this 'muddled and unplanned growth' generated a 'Unique City' (Rasmussen, 1948). The Danish architect Rasmussen believed London to be unique because of its polycentric pattern in which small surrounding settlements retained an identity even when they became part of London's built up area. Unique too, because the 'Englishman's (sic) love of his home and garden' was manifest in low densities of suburban growth, and the numerous parks and private gardens that many of us are familiar with today. Together these features of London's development contributed to a unique city form that was intimate and knowable - if not quite the compact city form desired by today's planners.

In practice rather more has been written about the consequences of the MGB for development elsewhere in the SE – than has been about the consequences for the urban area that lies within it. And while we can still recognise some of the same qualities Rasmussen saw in the late 1940s in the London of today, the spatial extent of the urban area also contributed to a range of environmental problems that planners are only now beginning to address in a holistic way (Hunt, 2005).

I will argue that if we are to think and plan ecologically we should be concerned about the consequences of containment for the urban area itself as well as for its local, regional and global hinterland.

The environmental and ecological consequences of London contained.

First: the urban area has its own distinct environment: its own climate, its own heat island, (temperatures in the inner city are 3-4 degrees higher than in the surrounding countryside; flowers bloom earlier, birds nest earlier. Air quality is poor and often polluted; soils are strongly modified by human activity – sometimes heavily polluted and substrates dominated by bricks and mortar; river systems are highly canalised, flowing in concrete coffers, or hidden underground and with flashy flow regimes influenced strongly by their impermeable catchments. And in terms of wildlife habitats, many habitats have been lost, such as grazing marshes, alder woodlands, heath and down areas, and while some remain as 'encapsulated countryside' - like Epping Forest and Wimbledon Common - the green matrix of London is largely made up of artificial habitats and gardens that are the product of human intervention and the exigencies of the urban environment itself .

Second: while the urban area has a substantial green estate its character and qualities reflect urban densities. With the spatial expansion of the London suburbs in the inter-war and post war periods came lower suburban housing densities (12 dwellings per ha) compared to densities of 25 dwellings/ha in the inner suburbs and densities of 40+ dwellings /ha in the oldest residential districts of inner London, and those of the many public housing schemes of the 1950s and 60s. A pattern reflected in the distribution of open space and wildlife habitats today.

Third: the green estate exists as a patchwork of fragmented and often isolated sites – few large sites: many small ones; few green corridors offering physical continuity of land cover for either people or wildlife; many remaining sites are of poor environmental quality because of urbanisation effects including the effects of disturbance by people - and dogs s explained by Nigel Reeve in his lecture. Fragmentation and isolation of habitats mean that some specialist and non-motile species are unlikely to survive in the long term while other more generalist and mobile species are ubiquitous. This complex biogeography means that is not clear for example, to what extent the species richness of plants and animals encountered in public open spaces – whether native or non-native - depends on the habitat qualities afforded by nearby gardens; or vice versa.

Fourth: in terms of environmental quality – some areas of London experience a poor quality environment whilst others have a much better one. The quality of the environment is poor not just in terms of poor air quality but also in terms of access to green space. There is a strong co-incidence between socio-economic disadvantage and poor environmental quality. Moreover, it became clear during the 1970s that poor environmental conditions were a factor strongly implicated in the 'flight from the city'. And studies of contemporary urban life continue to show that the majority of residents in inner and outer city areas give high importance to the better provision of greenspace and to improvements in the environmental quality of the public domain (London Sustainable Development Commission (2004).

Fifth: although a contained and in some respects a 'compact city', studies of London's ecological foot print reveal the extent of its global impact on resources. During the 1990s a new generation of environmentalists began to calculate the extensive global ecological footprint of cities as the area of land required to provide food, fibre, waste, building material etc. They showed that London's footprint far exceeds its fair share based on population alone. At present growth rates, London effectively needs three Earths to support this level of resource use. This profligate waste of resources in a world where sustainable development is a key political concern cannot be sustained.

In the year 2000, Londoners:

Consumed 49 million tonnes of materials 9 or 6.1 tonnes each. Consumed 154,407 giggawatt hours of energy, produced 41 million tonnes of CO2. Less then 1% of London's energy came from renewable sources Consumed 6.9 million tonnes of food, of which 81% came from outside the UK Consumed 866 billion litres of water of which 28% was leakage Travelled 64 billion passenger kilometres of which 69% was by car Produced over 26 billion tonnes of waste of which 71% was land filled and only 9% recycled (21% last year)

Source: Report on London's Quality of Life Indicators 2005 London Sustainable Development Commission and the Mayor of London

For all these reasons and others concerned with the proliferation of plans on different topics and spatial scales and the absence of an integrated, holistic approach to planning, when the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution came to examine Environmental Planning in 1999, it concluded that the environment needed to be put at the heart of the planning system.

The RCEP's report on Environmental Planning 2002

Key recommendations

Framing the purpose of Planning:

At a time when sustainable development had become a focus of wide public and political concern the Commission recommended that a clear purpose for Planning needed to be identified, namely:

'to facilitate the achievement of legitimate economic and social goals whilst ensuring that the quality of the environment is safeguarded and, whenever appropriate, enhanced.' Para 8.33 (slide…)

This way of identifying the purpose of planning puts the environment at the centre of activities. The RCEP accepted that if this objective were to be translated into practical projects, there will no easy 'win:win' solutions to future development - an interpretation that is often advanced when environmental quality has little statutory protection or, as is the case with the English system, the planning system is 'open to negotiation.' For this reason the RCEP also recommended that this goal be given statutory recognition.

Statutory recognition be given to the central role of planning in protecting and enhancing the environment – ie: not leaving it to others, negotiation or chance. Thereby the Commission believed the implicit presumption in the planning system that favours development should be challenged and not open to negotiation. In other words key wildlife sites for example would be protected on land, water and in the sea. Spatial planning – as a means of rationalising the overall planning system, Commission advocates integrated SPATIAL strategies covering all aspects of sustainable development. Spatial strategies should be four-dimensional addressing environmental capacity Atmosphere Ground water Land surface

- And should look well into the future – 25-30 years ahead (show slide)

The Mayor's Spatial Strategy known as the London Plan (2004) is consistent with this kind of thinking – see below.

All aspects of land use to be included – including their environmental demands and impacts. It cites the example of where development is proposed while giving scant attention to where water supplies will come from – and the environmental implications of securing additional capacity, Once development is in place, water companies have a statutory duty to supply – so that growth can create a 'need' for water that will override environmental objections to new supply infrastructure. Agriculture and forestry: Although the Commission stops short of recommending that agriculture and forestry be brought within the definition of development – it does propose that new farm plans should be produced for all agricultural holdings receiving subsidies, and they should specify how a defined level of environmental protection will be maintained. Agricultural land and forestry for example, in the MGB and within the GLA area. Improved availability of information about the environment to assist in developing and setting environmental goals/target – especially for gaseous emissions, waste, energy, biodiversity. Promoting the case that publicly funded information should be freely available. Public engagement: further steps to engage a wide range of people in decisions about setting and achieving goals if the public were to have trust in the planning system. In particular it reviewed and dismissed the arguments against extending third party appeal – arguing instead that this reflects a pro-development bias in the planning system. For example it supported rights of third party appeal when a development proposal is contrary to the Local Plan and in circumstances where an Environmental Impact Assessment is made.

Not all of these recommendations were taken forward in the Government's own recent review of Planning and in many respects the RCEP's approach is a more radical and more ecologically based one than the outcome of the government's review.

The work of the RCEP also coincided with the establishment of the Greater London Authority in June 2000. The GLA Act not only places a duty on the GLA to consider the implications for sustainable growth for London but also to exercise its powers in ways that it considers best calculated to contribute to sustainable development in the UK. Hopes therefore were high that the new governance arrangements would permit a holistic and integrated approach to planning on a citywide basis and one that would put the environment at the its centre. The London Plan was the main vehicle for putting this approach into practice.

The London Plan.

The London Plan (GLA 2004) is the Mayor's Spatial Plan and is consistent with some if not all of the thinking advanced by the RCEP.

Takes a long term perspective – 25+ years Is a spatial plan – addressing all land uses Sets clear targets for enviroenntal policies Establishes baseline information against which progress can be assessed Involved many groups in its preparation

Put succinctly, the Plan's overall objective is to progress the goal of 'London as an exemplary, sustainable world city'. This sounds highly desirable and five environmental strategies were prepared as a basis for supporting the Plan. Strategies were prepared for waste, air quality, biodiversity, noise and energy – the latter added by the Mayor soon after taking up office.

In ecological terms the strategies seek to use natural resources more efficiently – including land; increase the re-use of resources such as waste; reduce levels of waste and pollution; and to protect key wildlife sites. Based on the 'proximity principle' the environmental strategies set targets for producing more energy locally, consuming more waste locally and producing less pollution locally.

The preparation of the London Plan was a Herculean effort and one fraught with difficulties, but at least the preparation of environmental strategies has worked with ecological ways of thinking and set measurable targets to progress sustainable use of resources. The most difficult task of all was to integrate environmental strategies with strategies for economic development and transport prepared by two functional bodies, namely the London Development Agency and Transport for London (Goode and Munton, 2006). The scale of these difficulties becomes clear when we examine four basic assumptions that underpin The Plan (Edwards, 2006):

has to welcome all the growth in Gross Domestic Product and population growth expected has to concentrate much of this incremental employment in the central area ( where environmental quality is poorest) has to expand its transport networks to support this structure – not necessarily improving accessibility to greenspace has to fit all growth within the MGB – that is London needs to be a more compact city

The overall assumption that London has to become a more compact city with development undertaken a high densities, much of it concentrated in inner London, brings particular problems for the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity and wildlife habitats. In line with central government policy 60% of new housing for example will be on 'brownfield' sites – sites previously built on or derelict quarries and the like – and will conflict with protection of wildlife. And, although the 'proximity principle' assists with the achievement of many environmental goals, a more compact city does not bring benefits for wildlife conservation or the protection of quality green spaces.

The absence of a champion for sustainable development in the Mayor's office meant that trade-offs inevitably were made in developing the London Plan – a 'predict and provide' approach seems to have prevailed. Nevertheless we should applaud the attempts of the Environmental Strategy team to work with an ecological approach even if we also have to acknowledge the absence of water strategy, the fact that the State of London's Environment Report was not available at the outset of the planning process, and that there is little evidence that proposed developments – such as Thames Gateway for example, take full account of the pressures it will place on environmental resources.

Implementing The London Plan

If the London Plan seems to market rather than environment led, there are also problems of implementation for The Major has restricted powers when it comes to implementing the Plan – largely because central Government is reluctant to relinquish its own power. The Mayor lacks significant tax raising powers and needs to work closely with a wide range or agencies, organisations and the 32 boroughs on which the delivery of policies at the local level will depend. In practice as Tony Travers (2004) observes, the powers of the Mayor are largely those of 'patronage, persuasion and publicity' (p.67-8).

If the Plan is to deliver its policies and meet its targets, the public not only has to have confidence in the Mayor but also in the local planning system.. At this point we can note the recommendations of the RCEP that greater public participation in planning could be made more effective were rights of third party appeal to be extended especially in matters of the environment and were the process for achieving community benefits negotiated through the operation of procedures such as Section 106 Agreements made more transparent and equitable.

These recommendations have particular relevance for the protection of the environment and especially for the case of Sites of Nature Conservation Importance. As we have heard from Dr Justin Dillon, in practice the protection of SINCs depends on the actions of Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) and, in cases where an application is of strategic importance, on the Major's advice and judgement as well. So can we trust the Mayor and LPAs in matters of ecological planning?

Protecting Sites of Nature Conservation Importance (SINCs)

London has put in place a robust system for designating and protecting sites of Importance for Nature Conservation. Dr. Justin Dillon made reference to this system in the first lecture in this series. What is impressive about this system is that by working with many voluntary sector groups, the criteria used to identify sites at different spatial scales - at the Metropolitan, Borough and Local level, reflect the values of not just scientists and natural historians but ordinary people too. Both the intrinsic qualities of sites are recognised and the multiple benefits natural spaces have for society as a whole. At the same time they take account of the very wide range of habitats – artificial and semi-natural – that occur throughout the urban area. In this sense the system is a response to the vulnerability and resilience of nature in an urban context More than this, by identifying Areas Deficient in Easy Access to a quality wildlife site (Metropolitan or Borough SINC) within 1 kilometre actual walking distance – the system has a social purpose too. This system is certainly fit for purpose.

Progress on the success of the Mayor's Biodiversity Strategy (GLA 2002) will be measured against two targets to ensure that:

There is no net loss of Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation, and The Areas of Deficiency in accessible wildlife sites are reduced.

Given the government's espoused goals for housing provision and the higher densities at which dwellings will be built, it is clear that the political will of LPAs to uphold environmental policies on SINCs will be tested constantly. Figures complied to date by Greenspace Information for Greater London suggest that no net loss in the areas of SINCs has occurred over a 5-year period, but a state of flux prevails. Stock change shows there have been losses and additions to the area of SINCs disguising the fact that overall an area equivalent to the size of Regent's Park has been lost. (474 ha from Sites of Metropolitan Importance)

On the plus side and consistent with the recommendations of the RCEP a baseline has been established but with the development pressure anticipated in the London Plan we can expect this state of flux and the unrecorded loss of habitat quality, to continue. In other words it is difficult to know whether losses are replaced by a gain of equivalent character and quality.

I am not sure where this leaves the attainment of the second target - an improvement in the Area of Deficiency. I know from my own research (Harrison and Bedford, 2003) that even small development incursions into individual SINCs can alter the character of a site – its sense of peace and quiet, a simplification of habitat structure and the loss of exploration space for children's play.

It is for these reasons that I want to turn to the question of Section 106 Agreements and their use in the planning process to mitigate environmental damage especially biodiversity loss associated with the development of SINCs, brownfield sites and back land development of large gardens. These latter often have no protection in the policies of Local Planning Authorities even though research suggests that the larger the garden the greater the extent of landcover types and higher the potential for biodiversity (Smith et al 2005)

Section 106 Agreements often known as 'Planning Gain' arise when the LPA and a developer can enter into negotiation once a planning application has been submitted. The purpose of negotiations is to identify public benefits that might accrue were the development to go ahead. In the present climate where the housing market is driving development applications– social housing for key workers is often the primary beneficiary of these agreements. Section 106s are usually in force for 15-20 years but can lapse after 5 years.

Studies for English Nature (2006) of the use of Section 106 agreements for purposes of nature conservation suggest that few Local Planning Authorities use them especially for public benefit off-site. But in London they are likely to be increasingly used because development pressure will be so great. Without them it could be argued that it will be difficult to achieve any lowering in the Areas of Deficiency in access to wildlife sites – especially on a local level.

No third parties enter these negotiations and although LPA officers may take unofficial soundings with other parties, to all intents and purposes the LPA acts as both poacher and gamekeeper! This process is neither equitable nor transparent and was challenged by the RCEP who wanted to extend the opportunities for third party appeal.

It would be much more desirable were the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity – such as green and living roofs for example, to become mandatory as part of sustainable construction requirements rather than the discretionary 'add ons' negotiated through Section 106 Agreements.

Current proposals to replace Section 106 Agreements in part with Planning Gain Supplement, invites just as much concern since Proposed Planning Gain Supplements depend upon an agreed monetary charge being levied for specific proposals, sites or projects. But who will be involved in drawing up this list of sites and projects? How will meaningful rates and charges be agreed upon for biodiversity concerns? How transparent and fair will this be? Again this is a system predicated on economic efficiency rather than delivering meaningful outcomes for wildlife.

When community benefits are to be agreed, then the planning system needs to be more open, transparent and fair so that the multiple values society accords to 'common property resources' such as biodiversity, water and the atmosphere can be fully addressed.


Unless there is a stronger planning system (nationally, regionally and locally) that places the environment at its centre, the market will continue to shape development. Without this strengthened system it seems inevitable that London will:

Loose sites of importance for nature conservation – further fragmenting an already fragmented network of sites and accelerating the decline of rare habitats and species Residential and commercial development will seek to maximise densities in which opportunities for habitat creation will be restricted to innovative and benign developers unless biodiversity conservation becomes part of sustainable construction regulations Spatial inequalities in access to high quality environments will not be addressed without direct intervention and the funding to do so Configurations of new major development such as in Thames Gateway – are likely to leave collective needs such as access to high quality natural and social environments chronically under-funded. Reliance on Section 106 Agreements or Planning Gain Supplement to deliver these collective needs will be insufficient.

In London the Mayor has an important role to play in terms of Strategic Planning Decisions but the Mayor's own political agenda is to favour higher buildings and higher density developments – an agenda that has clear environmental implications. As the London Green Party makes clear (2006), there are concerns that he is exercising this role effectively. But because most development applications remain the decision of the boroughs and their Planning Committees, and the planning system implicitly assumes that development will take place, it is clear that we cannot rely on the planning process to protect important wildlife sites or to put the environment at the centre of planning.

In terms of mainstreaming ecological thinking into forward planning, planning in London has made some progress but the question arises: Who is leading?

In many respects the EU on air quality, water quality, habitat protection, carbon trading, mandatory sustainability assessments.
In some respects the Mayor and his team - on congestion charging, low emission zone and carbon-neutral development, compulsory energy efficient construction in the public sector.
Central Government – only belatedly has the government begun to act in relation to climate change for example, and from an ecological perspective recent changes to the planning system have not been holistic or fundamental enough.

As we confront the consequences for humanity of the breaching of environmental capacity made manifest through global climate change and rising sea levels, we require a stronger planning system that puts environment and ecology at its heart.


Anon (2002) City Limits: A Resource Flow and Ecological Footprint Analysis of Greater London. Oxford: Best Foot Forward Ltd,

Edwards, M. (2006) 'What if…the next London Plan were better?' Planning in London 57, 26-29

English Nature (2006) Using Planning Gain Supplement for nature conservation purposes. Research Report No: 672. Peterborough: English Nature ( now Natural England)

Goode, D. and R. Munton, (2006) 'The quest for sustainable development at the Greater London Authority' In Territory, Identity and Spatial Planning Tewdwr-Jones, M. and Allmendinger. P (Eds.). London: Routeldge. P. 237-254

Harrison, C.M. and T. Bedford (2003) 'Environmental gains? Collaborative planning, planning obligations and issues of closure in local land-use planning in the UK'. In Law and Geography. Current Legal Issues 2002. Volume 5. Holder, J and Harrison, C. (Eds.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp, 343-365.

Hebbert, M. (1998). London: More by fortune than design. London: Wiley.

Hunt . J .(Ed) (2005) London's Environment, London: Imperial College Press.

London Green Party (2006) ' Thames and London Waterways: Are they being sold down the river?' Press Release. London.

London Sustainable Development Commission (2004). Report on London's Quality of Life Indicators. London: London Sustainable Development Commission, Greater London Authority.

Mayor of London (2002) Connecting with London's Nature: The Mayor's Biodiversity Strategy. London: Greater London Authority,

Mayor of London (2004) The London Plan: Spatial Development Strategy for Greater London. London: Greater London Authority,

Rasmussen, S.E. ( 1948) London: the Unique City ( revised edition with 'Postscripts of 1947 for English readers only' and for American readers only') London: Jonathan Cape.

Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (2002) Environmental Planning 23rd Report. London: Cm. 5459

Smith, R.M., Gaston, K.J., Warren, P.H. and K. Thompson. (2005). Urban domestic gardens (V): relationship between landcover composition, housing and landscape. Landscape Ecology 20: 235-253

Travers, T. 2004 The Politics of London: Governing and Ungovernable City. Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan


Dan Harrison
Darren Johnson Green Party Assembly Member, GLA
Matt Davies and Many Rudd, Greenspace Information for Greater London
Staff of the Drawing Office, Department of Geography, University College London

© Professor Carolyn Harrison, Gresham College, 23 October 2006

This event was on Mon, 23 Oct 2006

Professor Carolyn Harrison

There is currently no biographical information for this speaker.

Find out more

Support Gresham

Gresham College has offered an outstanding education to the public free of charge for over 400 years. Today, Gresham plays an important role in fostering a love of learning and a greater understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Your donation will help to widen our reach and to broaden our audience, allowing more people to benefit from a high-quality education from some of the brightest minds.