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Nicky Marr: Housing is crucial but green spaces are too

By Nicky Marr

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Knocknagael Ltd, has won an appeal for ownership of the field to be transferred to the community. ..Ronald Macvicar, Sandie Craig, Alastair Simmons, Maria de la Torre and Gordon MacDonald...Picture: Callum Mackay..
Knocknagael Ltd, has won an appeal for ownership of the field to be transferred to the community. ..Ronald Macvicar, Sandie Craig, Alastair Simmons, Maria de la Torre and Gordon MacDonald...Picture: Callum Mackay..

It’s 26 years to the day since Mr Marr and I upped sticks from Edinburgh to move to the Highlands.

We looked initially at buying a house in the country, but it soon became clear that with one tiny baby and another on the way, town life would be easier. We’d have the convenience of work, shops, and schools all within walking distance, and at weekends and in the evenings could be deep in the countryside within a few minutes of leaving home.

It was a good move. We’re still in the same city centre house, just five minutes’ walk from the High Street. But the city has grown and changed almost beyond recognition since we put down roots in 1997.

Moving to Inverness, we morphed from central belt townies into walking, running, cycling and swimming outdoor junkies. Easy access to wild places was – and still is – one of the attractions of living here. You only have to wander by the Ness to see herons, seals and red squirrels. Our firth is home to dolphins, otters and basking sharks, while open skies are patrolled by ospreys and red kites. What a place to raise our girls.

Now though, with the massive explosion in housebuilding in and around the city since the late ‘90s, we have to walk or cycle a little further than before to find solitude.

We moved here the same week as the huge Tesco at Inverness Shopping Park opened its doors. To the east of that, green fields separated Culloden and Balloch from the city.

There was no Lifescan, no campus or Inshes shopping development, and nothing but fields south of Holm Mills. Craig Dunain hospital stood almost alone – high and imposing from its vantage point in the west. At the time of the 2010 Housing Expo at the Braes of Balvonie, there was barely a building between those eco-homes and Raigmore Hospital.

But how quickly things change. How quickly the gaps fill in. We now have Milton of Leys, Culloden West, new homes at Inshes Grove and Slackbuie and more; scores of new streets and thousands of new homes.

Which is great news for the construction industry and their suppliers, and great for everyone else who wants to move here.

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But the price we pay is that green spaces are rapidly disappearing. Inverness is still expanding, and our story is being repeated in towns and villages across the north.

Despite all the building since the late ‘90s there remains a massive housing shortage. Only a few weeks ago The Inverness Courier reported there were just seven properties to rent in the city.

Every business you speak to will cite a lack of affordable housing as contributing to their challenges to attract and retain staff, and without decent housing, communities struggle to thrive.

And yet I wholeheartedly welcome the news that a community bid to purchase a 20-acre field at Knocknagael to the south of Inverness has succeeded. Instead of the land being sold off for housing, Smiddy Field, which is part of a government-owned bull stud farm, will become a green hub; an oasis of community-owned allotments, with an orchard and paths.

The decision this week to allow the field to be transferred to a volunteer-led community group attracted widespread local and cross-party political support. And I’m with them.

Houses are vital, but so is community, and communities need spaces between houses in which to meet, walk, breathe, relax and enjoy nature.

The Knocknagael charity volunteers are a superb example of what can happen when people come together to stand up for what they believe to be right. Their example will no doubt be followed by others.

Joni Mitchell was right. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Let’s not pave all of paradise, please?

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