On Local Planning

Ours is the most geologically complicated country in the world. As a result the fabric and texture of our towns and villages is gloriously diverse and beautiful. Local building materials tell us where we are. From cob to half timbering, from the tone of a limestone to the shade the local brick. But these inimitable and distinct local characteristics are being wilfully eroded in the latest rush to build.

The present planning process is a fiasco. Among myriad others, our local Oxfordshire District Councils can’t refuse permission for new housing unless they can demonstrate that they have a deliverable five year housing supply. (They can’t do this because their Local Plan isn’t finalised). The floodgates are open. Not unnaturally, every landowner in Britain is applying for housing on disproportionately large acreages. Our next door village of Shrivenham is set to increase its population by 30 % through its current applications and objecting residents are powerless. Under the old planning policy, the man in the street had a fighting chance against mammon. Now he has none. Of course villages and towns should grow and evolve as they always have done but they should do so proportionately, with sensitivity to the surroundings and most importantly, democratically. 

Modern old-style housing in Poundbury The look is very traditional, but the date on the wall of the houses on the left is 1994.

Modern old-style housing in Poundbury The look is very traditional, but the date on the wall of the houses on the left is 1994.

Last year, the precedent for the whole country was set by the Minister for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles. In a complete negation of democracy, he overrode Tewkesbury Borough Council’s unanimous decision to refuse planning permission for a thousand new homes in farmland around Bishop’s Cleeve and gave the developers the go ahead. The council’s reasons for objection were valid and informed by local knowledge. They were keen to build new houses, but in the right places. They lodged a legal challenge against Mr Pickles saying his decision was inconsistent with the principles of the Localism Act but the High Court judge turned down their appeal to block the development stating that the decision was “not unreasonable”.

Of course our housing needs should also be met but not in this shortsighted manner. The planning Minister Nick Boles needs to take stock before relinquishing greenfield sites. Firstly there are close to half a million building plots with planning permission which have yet to be built on; secondly there are 635,127 homes standing empty (owned by councils, housing associations, public bodies like the army as well as by individuals ), half of which have been empty for longer than six months. Thirdly there are enough brownfield sites lying dormant to build 1.5 million homes on. Seeing that there is an urgent need to regenerate the dying hearts of so many of our market towns and even cities, why doesn’t Boles call for more visionary urban renaissance from great architects and master planners (the sort to attract young residents), and give positive incentives to developers to make it happen?

In the south of England where the pressure to build is greatest there won’t be many fields left quite soon. Oxfordshire has just signed up to provide 100,000 new houses. This fast track journey towards homogenizing the country into vast swathes of cheaply built ‘ could- be-anywhere’ houses relentlessly devoid of imaginative layout is depressing. Drop into a large development on the edge of Bracknell and you could be on the edge of Swindon, Birmingham or Newcastle. There is no local character whatsoever.

But it can be insisted upon. If you drop into in Poundbury in Dorset, which has been built over the last twenty years, you know exactly where you are. The local character is distinctive through its building details and materials. There are community buildings, squares, terraces, small industrial units, greens, pubs and parks. The mix works but it needs a visionary local council like Dorchester’s to bring it about as well as an enlightened developer.

Consider the beauty of Britain, Mr Boles – otherwise this government will go down in history as the one that allowed our green and pleasant land to be carelessly buried in urban mediocrity.

 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Richard Dorrell

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