John Black’s response to my comments on retailing (Letters, 23 December) shows serious misunderstandings of my arguments, the ways in which urban areas function and the role of government in managing these.
Places continually change in response to forces beyond the control of any parties. Transport is the key one. Town centres were established when most towns- people lived and worked in or close to them. Housing and industries were the main activities. Over time, many of these moved to more suitable locations to be replaced by retailing, offices, cinemas etc. These, in turn, have been “decentralising” for many years. The process is needed to meet changing needs and technology. It cannot be stopped.
The large areas of low-cost groundfloor space needed for much of modern retailing, with easy access by huge lorries, is not generally available in town centres. Nor is parking space to which shoppers can easily bring trolleys. Providing for these would be costly for councils and further erode local character etc.
I agree that town centres should accommodate many more residents in higher buildings, but these would only serve a fraction of the population. The issue has nothing to do with decentralisation. Where road transport (including buses) is the main mode, a “polycentric” region is needed.
Where public actions/policies ignore the forces of change, they cause major problems. Much flooding has been caused by “hard” engineering and myopic land-use planning. Thousands of homes were built on flood plains (eg north of Perth). In some cases, this was because “green belt” controls had pushed them on to these. Contrary to common understanding, “green belts” were never “environmental” policy.
Failure to understand social and economic geography has also caused many problems. The key relationship between land use and transport is now emphasised by government, but still poorly understood by many professionals.
Over the past 60 years, there have been radical changes in demographics, living standards, transport and technology. Most planning did not adequately foresee this. Many roads were built or improved to meet the needs of new housing with many cars, industries and warehousing.
Contrary to Mr Black’s claim, new retail centres were a logical result of the new main roads, not the cause of these. Most of the new local roads and facilities for buses were paid for by the retailers, who also must pay heavy council taxes. As the new centres are much more easily accessed than older town ones, they reduce the need to travel. Thousands of homes are much closer to Braehead, Silverburn, the Fort etc, than to Glasgow centre. Parking is not really “free”. Its costs are added to prices.
As for drainage, developers are now not allowed to increase run-off from sites but must find ways to slow this, eg by storage in tanks.
A new supermarket has been built on the east edge of Mr Black’s hometown of Helensburgh, nearly two miles from the centre. It is very popular. Many can walk or cycle to it. Should it have been disallowed so that people would need to go to the town centre – increasing traffic on the road thereto? Much of the non-food shopping by the town’s residents has always been done in Glasgow. Now they have the alternative of Loch Lomond Shores, which is about 15 minutes drive away with “free” parking. I doubt many Helensburgh people wish it had not been built.
I do not believe in a laissez faire approach, but in one that caters to a range of needs and allows choice. Planning should seek to give people what they want within limits of public interest. What I deplore is the dictatorial approach whereby public bodies seek to limit people’s freedom by equating the “public interest” with their own wishes.