I was deeply shocked, nay, indeed horrified – to learn recently than only 6% of our beautiful green island’s landmass is woodland, in comparison to a meagre 13% in the UK and a rather better 44% in continental Europe (source The Woodland Trust).
This information came to my attention from following the St. Mark’s Elm protest and the conjecture that the overly large driveway is the forerunner of future development.
It led me to thinking about the development of green belt land and left me pondering on our present housing fiasco and lack of affordable properties. With house prices rising sharply over the past year and little housing stock available, the knee-jerk reaction is to build more houses: Green belt land gets zoned for development, everyone gets upset but it all happens anyway regardless of what anyone says, does or protests about and the fat cats get fatter and the developers get richer. Typically, what happens then is that the rich snap up all the new builds to rent to young people at extortionate rates who as a result can’t afford to save for a deposit to get on the housing ladder. Then throw Covid into the mix. Job losses, remote working, businesses folding – the world as we knew it has changed, and changed forever.
So let’s start putting a few things together. Many office based companies – particularly ones which are part of bigger organisations with branches in the UK or further afield, having had their staff working successfully from home for months at a time, are now implementing a more flexible approach. Hybrid home/office working is the norm, with staff being able to work from the office a couple of days a week and the rest of the time from their bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens or wherever else takes their fancy.
The upshot of this is that these companies don’t need such big office spaces anymore and many will be down-sizing and using flexible hot desking or hoteling to get the best use out of a smaller, more affordable, space. And let’s not forget all of the small businesses that have had to close their doors for good because sadly they weren’t able to weather the Covid storm – not to mention some of the big names too.
Doing a bit of cursory internet investigation reveals that London and New York are already starting to implement where my head has been leading me, which is the re-development of empty offices and shops into living accommodation. Those empty shops in Strand Street aren’t single storey. Many of the older buildings have storage space upstairs which would have originally been living accommodation. Why not change it back? I have a rose tinted picture going on in my head at this point, of the barren and lifeless streets of central Douglas at night once again being home to families like the ones who were pushed out by the greedy office developers in the 80’s and 90’s; of how it could re-invigorate the town centre and allow more small artisan businesses to flourish, and how diversity, shopping locally and re-building a community of people that truly support each other … is probably a utopian dream.
But hey, it could happen if we gave it a chance couldn’t it? So what of the developers? Instead of chopping down the last 6% of woodland we have on the island (which has made me think of Dr Suess and his story The Lorax) to build on greenfield sites, couldn’t they turn their efforts to converting empty office blocks into residential accommodation instead? The owners of the empty shops in town are going to need to get creative too. The rents they have charged in the past for a spot on the high street are no longer sustainable, and with big brands like Wallis, Top Shop and Burtons all leaving the party there are some substantial buildings whose sad empty faces make walking down the street all rather depressing. But if they were used differently rather than just as retail outlets I’m sure those building could find a new smile.
If we re-develop what we already have, that would otherwise sit empty and costing the owners money rather than making it for them, then more people might be able to find somewhere affordable to live. This could be an opportunity to stop gobbling up our green spaces, to re-purpose what we already have and to lessen our impact on the environment; making homes available closer to the places we work, reducing commutes and reducing traffic. Living closer to where we work will also allow people to save money, helping to give our kids that all important chance to get on the housing ladder.
Of course, all of this needs a government with some backbone with a planning department that is led by someone prepared to root out what appears to be systemic bad practice, and is sensitive to the revolt of the Manx people against green belt development. There is a changing tide of sentiment towards a greener and more sustainable way of living but it’s not happening quickly enough. We have an election coming up in September. I urge you to take an interest, listen to what the candidates have to say and to choose wisely. It’s our opportunity to elect MHK’s who care passionately about our island, who are not self serving and who are prepared to stand up and fight for – what I believe we are struggling to hold onto given current events – our island biosphere.