When we think of the ‘green belt’ we have a tendency to imagine that it consists of a narrow strip of countryside encircling a major conurbation under constant threat from unscrupulous developers who want to desecrate it for profit. This way of imagining it derives largely from the vocal ‘nimbyism’ of the middle classes struggling to preserve a suburban lifestyle to which they have fled to avoid the urban centres in which they now have very little interest. They have coined the phrase ‘urban sprawl’ to increase the emotive pressure on planning authorities to restrict applications overlooking the fact that what they call urban sprawl is for the rest of us an increase in housing stock and a decent place to live.
They are quite happy for those living in urban high density housing to see that density increase provided that they themselves can reach the countryside with the minimum of inconvenience and there is no increase in suburban housing supply to diminish the value and exclusivity of their own properties.
But anyone who has travelled in Scotland can see that the way we imagine the green belt is a fallacy. There is no ‘belt’ of green space around towns and cities. What we have is miles of countryside and the briefest of rail journeys will confirm that. The countryside is not being concreted over, to the contrary, every new road or road bridge is hailed as a triumph. There is a desperate need to expand and improve our transport infrastructure and housing stock.
In short, we are not short of green but we are dreadfully short of houses and roads.
I believe that the course we should be taking is to have a good long think about green belt and planning policy and relax regulations for housing development and road building. The green belt provisions were designed largely for south of the border where needs and demands may be different but I do not believe they meet the needs of Scotland. We do not have the same geography nor the same problems.
Proposals to build on brownfield sites, while superficially tempting, will come nowhere near to meeting the housing needs of the country in its present state and would only increase the housing density for those already living in areas of overcrowding and attempts to increase the housing stock by building upwards have proven disastrous. Far better brownfield sites should be turned into urban parkland properly managed and maintained so that those living in already crowded urban conditions should have access to the chance of recreational use of pleasant green space, and if that means that the journey into the countryside for the suburban middle classes takes an extra ten or fifteen minutes then so be it.
This is not an argument for a removal of all restrictions on any kind of development but I think we must look again at how we treat the ownership and functional flexibility of land and how relaxation of restrictions could contribute to social and economic development.