Monday, 12 February 2018

TV Review. The New Builds Are Coming Part 2.

Placemaking. Who does it, and who do they do it for?

Communities. Are they created? If so how, and by whom?

These were the weighty questions that came to mind as we watched the second episode of The New Builds Are Coming last week.

The first episode was about a draft allocation bomb being dropped upon an unsuspecting rural community. The second episode focused on new communities: from their inception and design to the people who live there. In the ‘frenzy of construction of Oxfordshire’, it was asked, who ‘creates the foundations of community?’

The programme featured two fairly typical urban extensions on the edge of market towns and a smaller scheme on the edge of what planners might call a ‘main rural centre’.

Longford Park, Banbury, according to it’s website (https://www.longford-park.com/), is about “far more than new homes, it is a community in the making and a place that people will be proud to call home”. It is being built by Taylor Wimpey, Bovis and Barratt and as far as I can see was promoted through the Cherwell local plan by that consortium.

When development started in 2013 Michael Gibbard, lead member for planning at the Council, said that the Council ‘have always included this development in both the local plan and land supply figures so the delivery of these houses will not impact upon either’.

Kingsmere, Bicester, according to it’s website (http://kingsmere-bicester.com/), is a new village community. It is being built by Bellway, Bovis, Linden and Persimmon, with Countryside appearing to have been the promoter and masterdeveloper (perhaps instating the roads and sewers, and disposing of clean development parcels). It appears to have been a draft allocation at the time that outline planning permission was granted. The programme highlighted the Brewers Fayre and Premier Inn at the scheme’s entrance, and the space left vacant for a future community centre.

The third scheme to be featured was an extension to the village of Long Hanborough being promoted by Pye Homes. It would appear that quite a few extensions to Long Hanborough have been proposed of late and none appear to have been too popular (http://handsoffhanborough.co.uk/tag/pye-homes/).

I tried to find some details about the application online, but have struggled. The programme suggested that it was approved at Committee; the West Oxfordshire’s website suggests that a decision is pending; and the applicant’s agent’s website suggests that an appeal was upheld. I suspect, regardless, that the scheme was not plan-led and that the planning case for it was influenced heavily by the absence of a 5YHLS.

The residents of the larger urban extensions complained of ‘fleeting, dormitory communities’ with ‘no culture’. When campaigning for post-boxes and a road crossing they complained about a ‘lack of joined up thinking’.

It was interesting that some residents had founded their own association, perhaps with the aim of fostering a sense of community. There were no discussions about street parties or sports clubs though. Just objections about bins and parking.

The programme showed the attempts being made by Pye Homes’ masterplanners to develop a scheme that respected it’s edge-of settlement context. There was much earnest discussion about the key view analysis, consideration of key gateways and reflective detailing closer to the settlement edge. In the end, to secure officer support, units were lost for more green space and an offer of 50% affordable (above the policy requirement presumably) was made.

The representatives of Pye Homes complained about the pointlessness of pre-application meetings; of planning being a lottery and the application process being a ‘rollercoaster’. The masterplanner revealed that she would not live in a new house.

The programme, for me, shone a light into the gap between what the planning system could be doing to foster placemaking and new communities, and what it actually does.

Villages like Long Hanborough should grow. The relatively small scheme that will ultimately be built there will, I’m sure, look very nice; 50% affordable housing will make a significant contribution to local need; and new residents will move into their dream home and start drinking in local gastro pubs. Existing residents will get over the loss of their view and be glad that school places can be filled. There must be though a better, less confrontational, less rancorous way of getting there. That process should not be a rollercoaster. That kind of scheme in that kind of place absorbs a disproportionate amount of the time and energy of everybody involved.  

Towns like Banbury and Bicester should grow too, and they should grow at a scale, like Long Hanborough, commensurate with the potential of the place. It is at that scale where the place-makers and the community-builders are needed. The planning system here will allocate the land and determine the application, but, and here is the thing for me, it is for the most part there that involvement ends. That 2013 quote from Michael Gibbard is striking because it speaks to the numbers game that much of policy planning has become. It sounds as though he saying that ‘we have got a plan in place. We’ve got a defensible 5YHLS. Job done.’ Well, not really. These schemes need time and energy way beyond the decision notice being issued.

It is in everybody’s interests for those places to succeed, but it seems to me that despite no doubt good intentions on everybody’s part the framework within which they are operating is just not conducive to joined-up thinking. There are too many cracks for seemingly innocuous things like post-boxes to fall between. They probably rang the Council and were told to speak to the builders. They probably rang the builders and were told to speak to the Royal Mail. They probably rang the Royal Mail and were told to ring the Council. That probably went on for months…

Who should they have called? Who is responsible for building that community centre at Kingsmere? It is obvious who is building those places and it is obvious at any point in time as to who is living in them. Who owns them though? There will be generations of families in Long Hanborough who provide a golden thread (in planning speak) between the past and the future. Who in those urban extensions will do so though? The efforts of that resident’s association are a green shoot, but they cannot be expected to grow these kinds of roots by themselves.

Good builders build good houses and create good places, but cannot be expected to take on responsibility for the stewardship of a new place. The masterdeveloper has a stewardship role, but it is not an entirely altruistic one because a key focus will be ensuring that the early success of a scheme generates value for the later phases. The CLG Committee is looking at land value capture, which might mean, a little further down the line, a greater role for Homes England in the planning and delivery and major new developments. An organisation like that is perhaps best placed to consider value in all of it’s senses.

Weighty questions indeed. Perhaps too weighty because my running commentary on no doubt contributed to my wife falling asleep before the end the programme. Questions though that hopefully, amongst the ‘frenzy of construction’, planners will at some point have time to sit down and contemplate. It struck me at the end of the programme that they would have more time to spend thinking about the projects that they do want to support if they were not spending so much time fending off the schemes that they don’t.

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