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Landowners’s development challenge

Any landowner who has land with development potential can expect no sympathy from others less fortunate, and when a scheme is proposed will frequently be met not merely with local opposition, but even vilification which can last for decades,

Why is this? and why is it pretty understandable in most cases? It is because so many  developments of those dinosaurs, the volume house-builders, are grotesquely, poorly designed with little thought given to spatial master-planning or true energy efficiency for the coming world where all fossil fuel energy will be at a premium price.

The homes are invariably on housing estates, where the developer seeks to shoehorn in as many – usually detached – shoeboxes as possible. They will be in standard styles and materials out of the developer’s ‘pattern book’, replicated anywhere that he is developing – or desecrating – in the UK and which, generally, have nothing to do with the best established local vernacular. I well remember one of these larger operators attempting to buy a site and showing the layout of a recent development, on which could be found, the ‘Sussex’ house, the ‘Oxford’ house, the ‘Warwick’ house and so on.

These guys like to build what they are used to building and what their factory-like production line is set up to provide, without thought for the area or the community which already lives there, and at the lowest cost.  As a researcher recently remarked of them – ‘they are the build it and b- off brigade’. All they want is to complete those ill-conceived ‘units’ as cheaply and rapidly as possible, sell them and get off to the next site.

Now, should our landowner care about this?  If he is intending to live in the vicinity for the rest of his life and his children after him, alongside the consequences of what he has perpetrated, then he should certainly do so.  If the scheme is part of a much larger landholding that could ultimately be developed, then the middle and later phases will actually be more valuable if the first is one to be proud of.

For many years I have been working with The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment and, in turn, two of its teams are working with me for institutional clients.  The Foundation is fast establishing a world-wide reputation for master-planning places for people, designed to take account of the neighbouring town or city, the best building types and designs there – the ‘DNA’ of the place.  It master-plans new towns, extensions to existing settlements and urban regeneration schemes.  Each master-plan has the basic needs of any family within a five minute walk of virtually every home, thus reducing the need to drive for every pint of milk or newspaper and with quality open spaces that allow the town and its people to breathe.  Think about the most desirable market towns or major cities in England – isn’t that what you invariably find?

Curiously, master-planning this way invariably produces more homes per acre than the ‘dinosaur’ way, so taking less of our precious green fields.  This may sound strange, but it is actually true and I can give many examples.  One relates to the Foundation re-master-planning Upton, a major extension of Northampton and increasing a previous plan density on the same site by 35% to 1382 homes.  Another small site, which failed at appeal with 21 homes, when handled by a Foundation master-planner, increased overall quality and house numbers to 23.

The Foundation’s approach goes far further than their experts analysing the place’s DNA.  After meticulous research into the place, its history and culture, the people of the place, initially, representatives of all key stakeholder groups are brought together for detailed consultation.  The last government advocated this and the present coalition is strongly advocating ‘putting planning at the heart of the local community’.  This process identifies and records issues, needs and opinions of all the relevant groups, who then prioritise the issues that need to be addressed in any subsequent planning proposal.  This process also helps build consensus in the community and, with strategic policies of the locality, forms the best basis for developing more sustainable solutions for the future.

In about 600 BC, a Taoist sage said ‘Learn from the people, plan with the people, begin with what they have, build on what they know.  Of the best leaders, when the task is accomplished, the people all remark – We have done it ourselves’.  Is nothing new?

I believe the real, long-term challenge is to encourage and help landowners to insist on all new developments achieving this Foundation-like quality and so create real quality places for people that thrive and of which we can all be proud.

That achieved, they may also be able to go on speaking to their neighbours.

East Anglian Daily Times | 10 July 2010

July 10th, 2010
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