Gina Davidson: Green belt plan has lost the plot

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CRIKEY. Councillor Ian Perry’s been working up a bit of a sweat this week, hasn’t he? If he’s not redirecting the traffic around Princes Street and George Street and attempting to woo coffee merchants to open espresso emporiums along the boulevard of so many broken planning dreams, he’s been throwing off the shackles of Edinburgh’s development chastity belt; offering the green and pleasant land around the edges of our city as a sacrifice to the pitiless gods of transport.

Planning issues are never sexy – as viewers of BBC2’s The Planner will attest – but Ian Perry is doing his best to thrust his way into the spotlight with his package of proposals. And that’s not to mention the 
“revamped” scheme for Caltongate just unveiled by its new developers.

As could be predicted, such announcements always prove controversial. There’s the brigade that doesn’t believe the city council should even be involved in making such decisions when, you know, it can’t even empty the bins properly and it’s royally screwed up the building of a tram network. Sorry, line.

Then there’s the crowd, generally much smaller, which doesn’t believe that whatever the council suggests goes far enough – more pedestrianisation, more bike lanes, more trams. Then there’s everyone in between.

Let’s start with the Princes Street scheme. Sounds on the face of it like a good idea – anything which can encourage the retail and leisure mix of the city’s main thoroughfare should be welcome news. Certainly, the idea of making Princes Street and George Street one giant traffic contraflow system isn’t a bad one.

As always, the devil will be in the tiniest of details – such as parking spaces. Will relaxing the rules on what can open on Princes Street actually mean a future of large pub and restaurant chains and not a boutique, independent dining and drinking experience? And while the idea of a continental-style cafe culture always sounds good and looks even better in architects’ drawings, the reality is generally much colder and windswept.

To be honest, though, I’m all for anything which might reinvigorate Princes Street – it couldn’t get much worse. When the tram works finally stop and some money is spent on marketing the place, then having a few decent shops and bars (and my dream, an independent cinema) strung along it can only be to the good.

Turning to the other grand plan – the new local one which decides where new housing can be built all round Edinburgh – my view is somewhat different. It’s understandable that the business case the tram was based upon is worth about as much as the billboards which proclaimed it would be running by 2011, but to sacrifice the green belt to try and ensure that it has any chance of making money at all may be understandable from a council in financial straits, but it’s most definitely a step too far.

Councillor Perry’s argument that if the council doesn’t allow green belt land in the south-east and west of Edinburgh to become vast new housing estates then “house prices could rise” and “families forced out because it would be too expensive to live here” is nonsense.

That horse has already bolted. 
Edinburgh is already far too expensive for most families on average – and less than average – salaries to buy homes. Especially “new” builds in which they might desire to give their children a bedroom each. Especially new builds in the west of 
Edinburgh which sell for in excess of £250,000 already.

The price might be different in the south-east, but then I guess they won’t have the added advantage of having a tram line somewhere nearby, even though if they are near the Infirmary it might be the one place someone might actually want to get to by tram.

Of course, it’s good that the council is finally thinking of family homes. The previous drive towards small, one or two-bedroomed flats benefited no-one but mass housing developers and young people who once thought voting Liberal Democrat was radical.

But the green belt used to be 
something councillors fought to keep. It stood for something – for an environmental policy which didn’t believe that sprawl was a good thing and which demanded that developers fill brownfield sites first; for a council which understood that one of the best things about Edinburgh was its size.

Developers have long been chipping away at such lofty 
ideals. Their previous argument was that they could only build small flats on small brownfield sites, family homes demanded lots of space and it seems the council has finally bought it – though not, obviously, with the contents of anonymous brown paper bags.

I don’t have a shred of doubt that the reasoning for this on the west side of the city is to try and make sure there are some people using the tram. That may well work, but it’s an incredibly high price to pay to lose green space to mass density identikit homes which ruin the landscape.

Well done Councillor Perry. You might not have made planning sexy, but your flirtations with private developers have certainly got our 
attention.