Morning sun was flooding the room, but the news on the radio yesterday cast a cloud over the day.
A British business consortium is submitting a proposal to the Government for a four-runway airport to rival Heathrow, to be based in Oxfordshire or Berkshire. If a listener nearly 400 miles away felt glum at the prospect, goodness knows how it affected those in whose backyard the project may come to roost. This, while argument simmers over adding another runway to Heathrow, as it does over the mooted airport in the middle of the Thames.
North of the Border, meanwhile, one would be forgiven for thinking the authorities are either waging war against open space, or have taken out shares in cement and tarmacadam, so intent do they seem on obliterating green and empty land with houses, roads and "retail opportunities". The construction industry is supposedly in the doldrums, but you'd never guess that from the number of applications for new housing developments, be it upmarket executive complexes in the central belt, or rabbit-hutch schemes such as that proposed in my childhood home of Belhaven. A recent application to build 90 houses on the green-field belt that separates Belhaven from nearby West Barns means that, if it goes ahead, two separate historic villages will be fused into a single suburb of Dunbar. Given that other new homes in the area are apparently not selling, quite apart from the loss of open space and the strain on amenities if these houses are erected, people are understandably asking, why build at all? The answer? Because they can.
A threat even hangs over the public park near where I live in Musselburgh. Thanks to an ambitious private tennis club, plans have been submitted to build several courts and a car park on this beautiful open sward, which looks across the Firth of Forth to Fife. Like so many other counties, East Lothian, it seems, is in danger of disappearing metre by metre, as if a ravenous giant caterpillar was working its way across the land. The sight of turf seems to be an offence, an invitation to be stamped on. Thus, the very things that make Scotland so appealing are fast being eroded, as towns melt into each other, the patchwork of villages, fields, parks and hills buried under a lava flow of concrete.
There's a danger when complaining about such things of sounding luddite, like a peasant revolting against land enclosure, waving a pitiful pitchfok against the blunderbuss of big business and "progress". But it's the developers who are backward, thinking more like their colonising, land-grabbing Victorian forebears than as members of a modern, environmentally aware society. Because, make no mistake, as more countryside and unused land is covered, the ecological impact deepens. Not only does the risk of flooding increase, but the loss of wildlife damages the ecological balance essential for a healthy environment.
Those who put forward ideas for smothering land in the name of economic and social improvement should be far more imaginative and radical. If more housing is required, then why not refashion it from unused buildings, or design first-rate high-rises that are elegant, desirable and use less space? The idea that everyone needs their own patch of garden, given that it often comes at the expense of countryside, should be challenged. Let's liberate town-centre spaces which could be redeployed for housing or allotments, by asking football and rugby clubs and sports centres to share premises and stadiums. And while we're at it, we should insist that all car parks are built underground, or in stacks.
Above all, we need to create a culture in which open space is seen as being as precious as anything that can be built on it – more so, in fact, since such land is finite and irreplaceable. For all their talk of sustainability, government and councils seem shockingly blinkered in this regard. No doubt they believe that visible new developments justify their jobs. Yet why does nobody see any worth in doing nothing: in letting grass grow, and worms tunnel, and birds peck, so people can enjoy the sight of fields and wildlife, and empty sky? It's hard to think of anything much more important than that.
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