Suburbs in the Country
“Bungalow Bill” reports
A recent news report described how the Housing Minister intends to use an algorithm to decide on planning decisions, based on projected population increase and affordability of homes. Planning in our overcrowded island is often a contentious issue. This is especially the case when government intends to relax regulations to increase the pace of development. It would seem that the algorithmic approach is intended to speed up the leisurely pace of local planning decisions. Interestingly, this method appears designed to leap frog what is already in place. Every local authority was required to put in place a structure plan, a device beloved of central government. An algorithm is a sign that whilst civil servants might be satisfied, ministers aren’t so all that effort in creating a plan will be largely time wasted. Incidentally you would look in vain on local authority websites for anything entitled, ‘Progress on Achieving the Plan’.
Building new houses in a town can be somewhat easier if there are brownfield sites which can be used. Villages seldom have these. Added to which their growth over hundreds of years has been organic with odd parcels of land being used for house building by individuals. In the North of England some of the first changes to this date back to the nineteenth century. The coal barons of County Durham simply appropriated common green spaces in villages, to build houses for their miners. Then, in the last century during the inter war years, an agricultural depression saw the eviction of farm workers from tied cottages. As a consequence many villages in rural Yorkshire acquired some council houses.
The patina of age and a haphazard approach to siting have meant such properties were often able to blend in and even add to the character of a village. Things began to change with the arrival of the land guzzling and aesthetically questionable bungalow. Less desirable now, at one time they were an excellent way for builders to create a ribbon development along the approaches to a village. It’s unlikely that developers would see them as quite so good a prospect these days but in a way they have served their purpose by extending the reach of a village beyond its original boundaries. Today they signal the onset of urbanisation often well before a village is reached, with their low maintenance tarmac driveways and gravelled front gardens. They are the advance guard of the erosion of what made a village attractive in the first place.
Local structure plans are full of key words and phrases such as ‘strategic’ ‘vision’ and of course ‘environmental’. Another is ‘affordable housing’, though the term is seldom defined. Usually it involves developers being required to squeeze in a few cheaper properties. Design seldom gets the attention it deserves, particularly in a village. The authority is chasing a target and for the developer the imperative is to pull in punters who can afford the price and envisage themselves buying into rural life. Unfortunately, with central and local government prioritising numbers, the developer gets ample opportunity to undermine the village as a community.
Between 2004 and 2007 the Commission for Architecture looked at new builds and found ‘an unflattering picture of new house design quality’. Echoing this, earlier in the year, the Council for the Protection of Rural England concluded that ‘75% of new developments shouldn’t have gone ahead due to mediocre design’. Of course, design is a matter of individual taste. However when a design better suited to the suburbs is replicated in a rural setting then a suburb is what you get. With the aforesaid ribbon development already in place along an approach road, then the agricultural land it passes through is ripe for development, since there are already existing properties lying adjacent.
A study by University College London refers to ‘site specific designs’ yet often there seems little difference between a suburban design and one inserted in a village. The starting point is usually one of those excruciatingly twee ‘rural’ names to christen the development, like ‘Butterfly Mere’ or ‘Orchard Meadows’. If the Orchard ever existed it probably went under the plough years ago. In fact, the real winner is often the local landowner. The village has extended itself along the approach road and this arm can now grab a tract of land which will become vastly more valuable, once agricultural use has been swapped for planning consent.
Scott Fitzgerald wrote about ‘a little flutter of envy that city people feel towards men who live in the open’. Unfortunately people who buy into this often enclose themselves in a rural suburb. Roads are narrow, deliberately so to deter the use of cars, which of course doesn’t work; a few cosmetic differences to doors and windows are added in a feeble attempt to avoid allegations of uniformity. Even in higher priced developments where more space between homes is permitted, the open plan approach deters any attempt at individuality. Presumably restrictive covenants prevent the erection of walls, gates or fences and the result is a lifeless, artificial village. Some developments in rural North Yorkshire are so large that the end result is an estate with a village attached, the original settlement having been largely subsumed. Because these developments are add-ons using a former Greenfield site they do not link naturally with a village and have only one way in and out. Since there is no natural connection with the village, residents become insular just as they might in a suburb. People who have lived in a village for many years may assume they know everyone, at least by sight. The recent national lock down came as something of a surprise to long term residents. Forced idleness brought people out of their rural suburbs as they explored their surroundings for the first time. A hidden population in their midst was revealed to the locals. When it comes to new developments we are in the numbers game. How these developments look and fit into a rural area is of secondary importance.
William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service