Abercrombie’s County of London Plan
A while ago now (5 or 6 years), I was involved in helping the previous government develop their greenspace plans for Ecotowns. Yes it was a disastrous policy because the places where the Ecotowns were going hadn’t been consulted, and many local communities were, quite rightly, up in arms at the thought of a new town in their locality. Having 5 or 10000 houses dropped in your local patch is something that most people would regard with horror these days. And for the residents of Weston on the Green (Oxfordshire) or Ford (West Sussex) it was time to mobilise against the proposals, successfully. Having said that, if you’re the Prince of Wales, you can develop a 2500 house new town, make yourself a fortune, and get away with it.
The good thing about the Ecotown process was that, wherever they went, they were going to have large areas of public open space and places for wildlife factored in at the masterplan stage. These vital areas would have made up around 40% of the total area of each ecotown, and that’s more or less the proportion Patrick Abercrombie adopted in his approach to the post-war new town developments.
Well thanks to the NPPF, housing developments are being thrown willy nilly about the place, soaking up all the little spaces in towns and villages, as well as driving larger greenfield developments (since brownfield first as a policy was abandoned.) Although it has all the right words, in practice the NPPF is doing a negative Abercrombie, by removing all the vital greenspaces that contribute so much to quality of life.
Needless to say there is local uproar against housing development spread right across England. Even UKIP are making political capital out of this blunderbuss style development, claiming the ground as the “champions” of greenfield/greenbelt protection (they don’t worry about needing to differentiate between the two).
There is undoubtedly a good strong argument for planned developments of the 2500- 10,000 house scale, because it is only at this scale that infrastructure – open space, roads, sewage treatment, schools, hospitals etc can be planned in and funded by the developer.
While Lodge Hill was obviously not the right place for a 5000 house new town, the idea was right. So where should they go? Yesterday we heard that Bicester will be a new Garden City. Of course this is nonsense, Bicester is already a large town and if it gets an extra 13000 houses it will double to be an even larger town, but it won’t be a garden city, because these were masterplanned from before the first brick was laid.
It’s also faintly amusing that Bicester is actually the offspring of the most vilified Ecotown proposal of all, Weston on the Green, just up the road.
One of the sites which will contribute 10% of those 13000 new houses is called Graven Hill, part of a much larger former army supplies depot – it’s an MoD site. Graven Hill is a county wildlife site and it wasn’t so long ago that the MoD were proudly telling the local community about how they look after its wildlife. The proposal indicates (at least from the picture) that there will be a substantial area of greenspace within the development, though there is no information about exactly what proportion of the site will be green. Most of Graven Hill is self-build. Another site has recently been given away by the MoD to Portsmouth City Council for a 1300 house development at Horsea Island East and Tipner. Horsea Island is also a Local Wildlife Site and lies directly adjacent to the Solent, which is an internationally important site for birds and other wildlife.
Some people have suggested that opening up MoD land is the answer to our housing problems – and that idea has worked so well at Lodge Hill hasnt it?
There are around 200,000ha of MoD land in England. A recent Parliamentary answer revealed that 70,000ha ie over a third of this land is either nationally (designated SSSI) or internationally important for wildlife. I would imagine that at least as much again is County Wildlife Site quality – and I am sure there are other Lodge Hills out there waiting to be found and hopefully designated. And that’s no surprise as MoD land has escaped the ravages faced by agricultural land over the last 70 years, which have effectively wiped three quarters of England clean of nature, archaeology and history.
Yes there is scope to develop some MoD land into residential areas; and yes that could create new high quality homes with wildlife-rich greenspace. But to ensure that happened, the owners ie MoD would need to protect those features through covenants. So it is very disturbing that the Government is doing the exact opposite: in the Infrastructure Bill, currently in the Lords, the Government proposes to remove any covenants or restrictions placed on MoD land before handing it over to the Homes and Communities Agency who will sell it for housing development.
We need a say in what happens to land held in public ownership. Defence land is literally a Sanctuary (the name of the MoD conservation magazine) for wildlife, and these areas are essential if nature is going to be able to adapt to climate change. It’s time for a public debate about the future of this land.