14 MARCH 1998, Page 24


Melanie McDonagh on why

planners should spare Britain's brownfield sites

THE CHIEF difficulty in addressing the urban-rural debate in the wake of the Countryside March is colour prejudice. Given a toss-up between despoiling some- thing called the 'green belt' with a swathe of Barratt homes and filling up the gaps in something else called 'brownfield' sites that is, places which have previously been built on — which would you rather go for? Well, quite. On the most fraught environ- mental question of the day — miles more fraught than hunting — of whether it is necessary to build four and a half million new homes somewhere in Britain, the gov- ernment has managed to shift the debate onto safer ground: where they should go and in what proportions. Green belt or brownfield sites? Sixty per cent on brown- fields (John Prescott), or two-thirds (William Hague), or three-quarters (Lib Dems)? The higher the figure, the greener your credentials.

Green is good, brown is yuck. Green means fields with peaceful cattle grazing in them, just like the pull-out poster in the Daily Mail on the day of the Countryside March. Brown means derelict industrial sites, contaminated former gasworks, urban wasteland. Green means rural, brown means urban. And the English obsession with the countryside, which has not prevented vast swathes of it being turned into industrial-scale agrarian prairies, will ensure that the debate will probably be decided on the level of emo- tive linguistics.

If one of our primary concerns in dis- cussing that weirdly all-encompassing issue called the environment is respect for nature, the protection of habitats, the con- servation of endangered species, the main- tenance of as much creaturely diversity as possible, then I'm afraid that this kind of dualism won't do. It is quite simply the case that many large-scale former industri- al sites in English cities, which look to the eye of a property developer like so much blank space, are infinitely more hospitable to flowers, insects and birds than places which are designated as 'areas of outstand- ing natural beauty' and attract coachloads of trippers. The government has put the architect Richard Rogers of all people — the one who designed Terminal Five, the environmentalists' nightmare, for BAA in charge of a working party to determine which brownfield sites should be devel- oped. Lord Rogers is a sophisticated, urbane man and Labour's pet planner, but I wonder whether the quiet charms of many genuinely important urban spaces may be a little too unobtrusive for him.

Certainly, at first blush, they were for me. I went the other day to a classic urban wasteland, what used to be Woolwich Arsenal. It is an enormous area next to the river in Thamesmead, which was once a firing range and storage area for explo- sives: flat, unprepossessing grassland, the only trees being the black poplars next to the river. You approach it by climbing through a gap in the wire fence that sur- rounds it, courtesy of enterprising local boys who were exercising their very own Right to Roam in the wasteland next to their housing estate. To those whose notion of natural beauty is based on horti- cultural prettiness, with trees thrown in, it is an unlovely prospect.

But this is precisely the kind of site that should be preserved by any government, any local authority, with the smallest regard for the maintenance of native habi- tats. Herb-rich grasslands and meadows are the most threatened parts of British ecology. No less than 97 per cent of them have disappeared in Britain since the war, the result of urban expansion and postwar agricultural practice. And once you take the trouble to look, you see the remark- able diversity of plant life here: hawkweed, ox-tongue, sea beet, wild carrot, vetch which reminds you of sweet pea — red and white clover, hare's foot, goat willow — the male just coming into flower crack willow, St John's wort, common field speedwell, heaps of young broom with Don't tell me. You're from the Moon, right?...' spindly green shoots, and what I would call furze.

These are unobtrusive, unshowy kinds of plants, with their curiously humdrum and evocative English names, and I freely con- fess that I wouldn't have spotted, let alone been able to name most of them, if I hadn't been trotting after a friend from the Lon- don Wildlife Trust who could see treasures that I would have trodden on. There are well over 150 species here, occurring per- fectly naturally; later in the year they will look rather pretty, in a blaze of flowers. In such grasslands there is a long flowering season, starting now and going on until November. It is a remarkable habitat, which could perfectly easily be kept open to the public with minimum maintenance. If I were a child on the estate next to it, it is the place where I would play, even if it meant taking wire-cutters to the barrier around it.

But because urban sites given over to nature are simply not valued, the Woolwich Arsenal is being handed over piecemeal to developers. Abruptly, the grassland gives way to flattened mudland, where the bull- dozers are at work on the next housing estate. The fate of the area is ultimately decided by Thamesmead, which is answer- able to Greenwich council, and it is, being decided in little blocks, not taken on its merits as a whole. And when the grasslands go, so do the insects, and the birds, includ- ing many song-birds, that feed on them. While I was there in the driving rain, I saw a kestrel overhead and long-tailed tits.

Woolwich Arsenal can be described in the most loaded language imaginable — it is contaminated (which doesn't make any difference to its ecological value), derelict urban wasteland, a classic brownfield site. But it is precisely areas like this one which are more deserving of protection from the developers than the sort of green-belt site that gets people all worked up about the expanding city.

Can I put the matter in brutally selfish terms to the militant rural crowd? If urban wildlife sites, especially important ones cov- ering a substantial area like this one, are preserved, the quality of life for London youth is going to be humanised. There will be natural areas for children to play, for people to take the dog for a walk, to take wildlife study classes from primary school. In short, the brutish urban masses will be less likely to clamour to move to Oxford- shire and Kent and all the places where journalists and stockbrokers want to live.

Keeping nature in towns is an excellent means of keeping the townies out of the country. Of course, there are any number of small-scale so-called brownfield sites which would be perfectly good for housing developments (though not, perhaps, for sprawling executive housing), but each one should be decided on its merits. What is needed in the countryside debate is a new militant urbanism to speak up for the rus in urbe. Brown can be a pretty colour.