Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Putting communities before developers

As MHDC prepares to vote on whether to add still more homes to the already bloated South Worcestershire Development Plan, its Tory leadership predictably wrings its hands. But let’s not forget how readily they’ve accepted central government’s bidding to build our way out of recession, regardless of the environmental and economic cost. To its pleas there is no choice – there is always a choice.

The SWDP needs to have people and communities at its heart and should be embracing their contributions and participation throughout the plan-making process and over the full life of the plan period that follows. Instead, the process appears to have generated more upset and disquiet than enthusiasm among communities in South Worcs, and while we appreciate that the proposed plan has been produced in line with the formal consultative requirements of a plan-making process, the outcome has clearly failed to attract the groundswell of active public support/ownership that would surely be the hallmark of a successful outcome. This is a highly unsatisfactory basis for committing to a long-term development plan and reflects an insufficiently ‘bottom-up’ plan-making process, with inadequate provision for active engagement and dialogue with communities.

When the SWDP was published in 2012, the Greens were the only local party to offer a formal response – a serious, radical alternative to the concentration of development in large urban extensions. We proposed a distributed form of additional development across the area (all existing settlements growing pro rata to their current size) as a more appropriate option for accommodating the extra housing and employment growth. Such distributed development:

  • better supports regeneration of rural and other local communities and makes them more self-sustainable as places to work as well as live
  • does not require such large-scale additional infrastructure (particularly roads) or risk further congestion of the existing travel network
  • provides a more manageable response to what is a fairly uncertain level of need for extra housing and employment provision, especially as distributed development (on smaller sites) can more easily be managed incrementally
  • represents a more logical response to 21st century trends and lifestyles when so much more business and communication will be electronic, rather than face-to-face and the costs of transport (at least with fossil fuels) are likely to have escalated much further, particularly in response to ‘peak oil’
  • enables the villages to become economically prosperous once again, able to sustain a wide range of local services and amenities, which in turn helps nurture and support local entrepreneurialism to further underpin their success as local economies
  • enables the character of Malvern, the views from the hills, and the town’s tourist potential, to be protected from further sub-urban sprawl and more town centre traffic congestion
  • is more likely to support sympathetic and high quality architecture and respect local vernacular design
  • saves large tracts of high quality land for agricultural/food production purposes (recognising the importance of South Worcestershire’s farm economy both for local and national food supply) 
  • minimises the pressure that large-scale concentrated development has on existing and new essential services (e.g. doctors’ surgeries, fire stations, water/sewerage mains and power supplies)
  • is more likely to promote and support strong community identity and sense of place than do the soulless commuter-oriented, upwardly-mobile and transient estates that large-scale housing extensions invariably become
  • avoids the risks of ghettoisation of less advantaged people and families that again so often goes hand in hand with large tracts of residential development, particularly where there is likely to be a significant proportion of social housing (e.g. the SWDP is looking for 50% affordable housing on larger sites).

In addition, particularly in response to the relatively high population/household growth envisaged for the sub-region, we proposed provision for one (possibly two) significant new green towns in the South Worcs area – zero/low carbon sustainable, self-sufficient communities, with a strong emphasis on advanced technology in terms of employment and economic base – of between 2,000–3,000 houses plus associated employment and amenity space and sufficient sites for a full range of service provision.

Certainly there is a need for more house-building – though there has been insufficient emphasis on bringing empty homes back into use and renovating our existing housing stock. But as important as the numbers are the variety of types, sizes and costs (affordability) of additional housing to meet a range of household circumstances. We want to see a much greater emphasis on achieving a better balance in the housing stock – with much more (affordable) provision for first-time buyers, more social housing (rented and shared equity), and many more smaller houses/bungalows to suit an aging population. The Plan should not just leave it to developers to build what they wish – since this only results in mass provision of (more profitable) executive homes that are unaffordable/unsuitable for many local needs and instead simply attract outsiders into the area, many of whom will commute long distances to work.

The SWDP, and the additional development it permits, also represents an important opportunity to upgrade significantly the standards of thermal efficiency in our housing stock to respond to the problems of climate change and escalating fuel costs. Exacting standards for new development with regard to energy efficiency and carbon emissions should be set. In this way the Plan can be the instrument by which we dramatically improve design standards in relation to a range of considerations, such as access to services and provision of community focal points, sound insulation and privacy etc.

The Plan is pessimistic about the prospects of being able to achieve the significant additional transport infrastructure (road schemes in particular), although having said that, the Plan also seems predicated on such additional infrastructure being provided. But cheap and easy car travel has been a major contributor to the loss of local facilities from smaller communities through diminished custom and viability. Moreover, experience tells us that road improvement/congestion alleviation schemes mostly only provide short-term relief and simply encourage more vehicles on to the highways so that soon the congestion and pollution problems re-emerge. This is a hopeless circular process out of which we must escape – and for which this SWDP again provided a golden opportunity that has been squandered. 

Our preferred option of a more distributed pattern of additional development seeks specifically to do this – by both reversing the trend to dormitory settlements for our villages and re-establishing them as sustainable and vibrant communities with local employment and services so that people need to travel far less. This is surely a more logical way to solve traffic congestion problems than continuing to throw public money at short-term alleviation schemes.

Such a vision requires imagination and the courage to stand up to central government and large developers. This administration has neither the imagination nor the courage, resorting to its party whip to ensure MHDC rejected our vision and forcing this unloved beast of a plan upon us.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your point about using empty houses, instead of the developers building new houses and hoping for people to live in them. Ellerslie School has lain derelict for a decade since being taken over by Malvern College. What a waste of available space?
    Gerry Taggart