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25/03/2014

Blog: Let's take an audit of ALL existing land

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The UK countryside

Everyone acknowledges we have a severe housing crisis. There is little agreement, however, as to where the 250,000 dwellings a year must go. Do we risk building on flood plains? Or take agricultural land that may be needed in the near future to bolster our food security? Perhaps we should build over our beauty spots and wildlife reserves?

We need to look again at the land used for transport and consider the downsides – greater runoff from tarmac (hence flooding), air pollution, reduced biodiversity, severance (both people and wildlife), obesity through lack of exercise, reductions in children’s play opportunities, and the decline of the high street by out-of-town retail, not to mention carbon emissions and the danger of a future energy crisis.

Facing the acute need for housing, two measures need to be taken. First, to ensure that land to be developed or redeveloped is used for priority needs over less essential uses (housing rather than cars), and second, to ensure the greatest efficiency of the use – cars being notably less efficient in using transport space than public transport, cycling or walking.

At the local level an audit of all existing land should be undertaken, rather than just the obvious sites. Is a retail warehouse car park really the best use? How many houses could go onto the site of an out-of-town supermarket (and how many shops would be saved in the town and district centres)? When houses are built, how can the amount of land needed for roads and parking be reduced and replaced by green space, gardens and more houses? The early garden cities are design icons because they were not overrun by vehicles – car ownership then being very low.

“As the shortage of housing becomes more of a political issue we are faced with a stark choice”

At the district level safe pedestrian and cycle routes should take over road space to form green corridors.

Rapid transit should provide cheap, frequent and reliable movement possibilities to all major traffic generators and link the different parts of town. Community electric vehicle schemes should provide for the occasions when car use is essential.

Clearly, government is not going in this direction – it is reducing the impact of fuel duty and intends to build more (destructive) new roads. Out-of-town developments proliferate and bus services are cut.

As the housing shortage becomes more of a political issue we are faced with a stark choice – either accept the fact that huge swathes of countryside will be sacrificed to car-based development, or build more houses on less land and with a better environment.

John Hack is a retired strategic planner and an environmental volunteer.

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