Guest post by Chris von Ruhland
Chris von Ruhland is the Green Party’s constituency candidate for Cardiff North and regional list candidate for South Wales Central.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, My Cardiff North.
When I first visited Cardiff, over 35 years ago, what first impressed me was Bute Park and Sophia Gardens; magnificent public green spaces right in the middle of the city and flanking its major river. This contrasted sharply with the city from which I had come, namely London. I was informed that Cardiff had a greater proportion of green spaces than any other European city.
When I moved to Cardiff a few years later to study, and finally to live and work, I had many opportunities to explore it further. What struck me, in particular, was that the edges of the city, to the north and to the west at least, were clearly visible from many parts of Cardiff. I had lived for the past 2 years in southern Plymouth and, standing on the Hoe and looking north, all that I could see was a hillside covered in houses, like a huge wave of brick and stone. This contrasted sharply with the view that I now beheld. Cardiff was clearly a very special city.
The reason that the land to the north of the M4 has remained undeveloped is, primarily, topography; there are flatter places to build. Another reason is that the M4 motorway forms a barrier, albeit an unnatural one, to Cardiff’s northern expansion. There has also been considerable reluctance on the part of the city council, over many years and political hues, to release the land for development.
While this area has been designated a green wedge under the local development plan, it only confers protection until 2026. Residents, councillors, local MPs and AMs are unanimous in their support for a Green Belt, that would protect this area for future generations, yet Cardiff Council failed to convince the planning inspectors.
The inspectors were subject to the requirements of Planning Policy Wales, which has existed since 2002 and is now in its 8th edition. It is surprising, therefore, that any objections to the green belt proposal were not predicted and adequately addressed, particularly when the two institutions are a stone’s throw apart. Don’t people talk to one another?
The problem is that there appears to be no long term vision of how Wales in general, and Cardiff in particular will look in several decades’ time. Without this, there can be no meaningful short term planning; it is purely a reaction to existing circumstances. Cities, in general, become worse places as they get bigger; people must travel further for work, leisure and shopping, traffic congestion becomes a daily grind and air pollution becomes a serious problem. Cardiff seems to be on this trajectory, having become a victim of its own success. The demand for housing has never been greater and large areas of what remains of the green spaces that surround the city have been earmarked for development, with little apparent thought given to the necessary infrastructure requirements.
Such a laissez faire attitude will not protect the remaining green spaces and Cardiff is likely to expand inexorably, merging with Caerphilly to the north and Barry to the west; indeed, westward expansion into the Vale of Glamorgan was proposed many years ago to bring Cardiff airport into the city boundary. Fortunately, this madcap scheme was shelved.
In the city, we are constantly subjected to the sharp angles of buildings and, increasingly, great swathes of bland grey concrete or cladding; little wonder that some take it upon themselves to decorate these surfaces with graffiti/ urban art, depending upon your viewpoint. The natural and rural environment provide a necessary relief from these assaults on our senses. What is important, I think, is not just having open countryside so close to the city, but being able to see it, to know it is there. It defines its boundary. To lose this would be a travesty.
If we are to protect what we value, then we need to plan long-term, and much longer term than we have become used to. Greens do this as a matter of course, which is why their voices are so desperately needed in the Senedd. What should be a place of vibrant and diverse political debate has become rather staid, with one party permanently in power. Little wonder that less has been achieved than we might expect. We need to shake up the Senedd.