Tag: Gateway

Swindon housing supply

Today the planning enquiry starts into the planning application from Persimmon and Redrow Homes to build near Coate Water at Commonhead. This is what’s left of the former ‘Swindon Gateway’ project.

With other areas identified for house building — for example Wichelstowe and Tadpole Farm — already having space for many thousands of houses, it is perhaps timely that just two weeks ago the Department of Communities and Local Government published figures for housing supply during the last financial year. For Swindon, the figure for ‘net supply of new dwellings’ is down by 11% compared with the year before. (By comparison, across the whole of south-west England there was no significant change, and for England as a whole there was a decrease of 6%.)

Net housing supply for Swindon
Year 2004-05 2005-06 2006-07 2007-08 2008-09 2009-10 2010-11
Dwellings 1710 1550 2260 1940 970 880 780

At the rate of building seen in recent years, land already identified for new building is sufficient to keep the builders going in Swindon for many years. Even if they forecast a recovery in the housing market, for the developers to argue — as they no doubt will — that there is a desperate need for extra land to be released for housing in Swindon is fanciful in the extreme.

Closing the Gateway

With the recent pronouncement that the housing targets of the Regional Spatial Strategy should nolonger be a material planning consideration, the Swindon Gateway Partnership may feel they’ve wasted their money submitting yet another planning application. Like its predecessors, the new application depends heavily on the targets of the Regional Spatial Strategy to justify concreting over much of Commonhead, near Coate Water. Lets hope that the dying Regional Spatial Strategy will take this development proposal with it to the grave.

Now, the developers may, rightly, point out that the development area in the new plan is little more than that identified in the Swindon Borough Council’s Core Strategy. But it is more. The development area in the new application extends slightly further south than the area the council identified for possible development. The developers also want to squeeze 960 little boxes houses into an area the council believes can only accommodate 750. More importantly, the Core Strategy was written to meet the targets in the Regional Spatial Strategy and at the moment is still only in draft. With the Regional Strategy now being hurriedly buried, the Core Strategy’s housing targets should also be seen as immaterial.

Swindon may well need many more houses to be built, but squeezing almost 1000 of them into this particular space at Commonhead is not the way to do it.

Rejected… for now

It shows how well Swindon Borough Council presented their case that, on appeal, the Swindon Gateway Partnership’s application to concrete over the area surrounding Coate Water has been rejected following the planning inspector’s recommendations. This will no doubt bring on a certain amount of celebration by the campaigners that fought against the development. Any such celebration is misplaced.

The decision is quite clear about why the application was rejected. It’s also clear about which objections weren’t important. Most of the campaigners’ objections are in that latter group. In summary, the reasons why the development was rejected were:

  • impact on the views from Coate Water park, particularly towards Liddington Hill;
  • insufficient gap between the development and the eastern side of Coate Water park;
  • lack of confidence that the area on the site identified for a university would actually be developed as such;
  • detrimental influence on town centre regeneration that building offices and a university on the edge of town would have;
  • insufficient guarantees to ensure that the offices would be used as a science park linked to the university;
  • constraints on future expansion of the Great Western Hospital.

Objections that were not upheld were:

  • flood risk;
  • impact on views of Coate Water from Liddington Hill;
  • impact on wildlife;
  • proximity to an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty;
  • protection of archaeological heritage;
  • literary associations with Richard Jeffries.

From that list it can be seen that most of the campaigners’ objections were cast aside, whereas the objections from Swindon Borough Council — so often criticised by the campaigners — were upheld.

There’s one other feature of this decision that seems to have been overlooked by those celebrating the rejection of the application. That’s the support in principle from the inspector and minister for housing development on the site.

The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that… the appeal proposals have the potential to deliver high quality housing,… make a meaningful contribution to identified housing needs and are in a suitable location in principle for an urban extension. He gives significant weight to this factor.

He has given considerable positive weight to the contribution the proposal would make to easing the identified shortfall of housing in Swindon, including the provision of affordable housing. However, the Secretary of State considers that this needs to be set against other factors including the proposal’s failure to use land effectively and efficiently, due to its excessive land take in respect of the university campus.

In other words, a revised application, with houses in place of a university, may well succeed. The fight for the area around Coate Water is far from over.

Fantasy worlds

It’s difficult to decide which is least believable. First there’s LDA Design making over-the-top claims for Wharf Green (You can either read the original press release, or its recycled form in the Adver).

The square has given a real boost to the town centre and its ambitious long-term plans for regeneration.

Or the even more ridiculous claims in their submission to The Civic Trust’s awards.

Wharf Green provides a first impression for many visitors, and this scheme has redeveloped the area to provide a new town centre square, meeting and public performance space. A large scale timber façade serves to both integrate a large TV screen and conceal an unattractive car park, making the area more welcoming. The landscaping has softened a large space and encourages people in to make use of this improved public space.

The only visitors for whom Wharf Green would provide a first impression of Swindon are those arriving by parachute, blindfolded. And in what way has digging up the old flower beds and replacing them with an uninterrupted expanse of paving stones ‘softened a large space’? Developer hyperbole, one; reality nil.

But move to the edge of town and the claims, this time by the campaigners, are no more realistic. There, the Jefferies Land Conservation Trust has wild claims for the potential that a few stones indicate for the area near Coate Water.

There is a real chance here to create almost a mini-Avebury…. Whilst not on the scale of Avebury, it is so exciting to know that Coate is steeped in similar pre-history…. It would be criminal to surround these ancient relics of the past with modern buildings.

That’s not on the same scale as Avebury in the way that Swindon isn’t on the same scale as London, or that Coate Water isn’t on the same scale as Lake Windermere.

Developers and environmental campaigners are often opposed to each other, but when it comes to having a grasp on reality, both are equally out-of-touch.

The impotence of petitions

In a contest, it’s important for the participants to know and follow the rules. Those that don’t know the rules tend to lose or worse, get disqualified. This basic requirement applies not just to sports, but to any contest: school exams, elections, mortgage applications, the list is endless. Somewhere in that list are planning enquiries.

As I’ve noted before, the Save Coate campaigners have admitted to being amateurs when it comes to planning enquiries. In their surprise at how the Coate Enquiry has been run, that amateurishness is apparent.

All of those signatures that took time and effort to get together were just counted as one complaint.

If they’ve read the guidance for participating in planning appeals, they should’ve known before they started that would be the case. It doesn’t take much effort to find a couple of examples on the Planning Inspectorate’s website that show how petitions have been treated in previous enquiries. Why do they think it is that many of the big environmental activist groups don’t bother with petitions but run mass letter writing campaigns instead? It takes less than a second and zero thought to sign a petition. They may be good for publicity; unless backed-up by submissions from others making a similar point, they’re almost worthless for winning a case.

I think Swindon Council really passed up a number of opportunities to challenge the developers, so it was left to us to do it.

Or perhaps Swindon Borough Council’s counsel was sticking to the rules, rather than raising issues that the law does not allow the inspector to consider.

I just hope that the planning inspector appreciates the views of the people of Swindon and will take those on board.

That’s very unlikely, as he’s not heard the views of the majority of the people of Swindon. All he’s heard are the views of the council, the campaigners and the developers.

I don’t wish there to be development in the area near to Coate Water, but neither do I wish to have a group of unelected environmentalists claiming to represent the views of Swindon.

Planning campaigns

I’m no fan of the proposals to develop the area to the east of Coate Water, but I still despair at the approach of the campaigners opposing the proposals at the current planning enquiry.

The campaigners admit to being amateurs.

We’re amateurs, it really is an unfair contest. It’s like playing rounders with your hands tied round your back.

It shows. They forget that they are not the only ones opposing the plans at the enquiry. Swindon Borough Council is opposing the plans too and, whilst they may not have as deep pockets as the developers, they’re certainly not in the amateur category.

If you’re participating in a quasi-judicial process like a planning enquiry, it’s worth sticking to the rules, not ignoring them. Not doing so tends to annoy those in control, and risks the valid arguments getting lost in an ocean of irrelevant dross. If one disagrees with the statutory bodies that have an obligation to express an opinion on applications such as this, careful argument is required to explain why.

David Richards, officiating, said: “My understanding is that the problems of the flood risk is that the Environment Agency has withdrawn its objections.”

Mrs Saunders responded: “So have a lot of people — it doesn’t mean they’re right.”

Hmm… not much evidence of careful argument there, nor evidence of a belief in democracy either. Arrogant dismissal: one; effective campaigning: nil.

With support like this, if Swindon Borough Council win this enquiry, I suspect it will be despite the campaigners, rather than because of them.

The feel of a university

Mr Rushforth of the University of the West of England believes that the Oakfield site in Swindon does not feel like a university.

I am not sure that people thinking of sending their sons or daughters to university would think it was appropriate. It does not have the feel of a university campus.

I’m not sure what Mr Rushforth thinks a university campus should feel like: his own Frenchay campus in Bristol is not exactly stunning. Oakfield is mainly flat open fields, much like the site near Coate Water that he would prefer to locate a UWE Swindon branch on. Frenchay is also quite flat, but looks like a factory estate and office park. Neither feel like a university campus to me, but Oakfield does have the benefit that with some good architecture and landscaping — plus a smattering of students, of course — it could be made to look and feel like one. For the Frenchay campus it is already too late.

The fields around Coate don’t feel to me like a housing estate. I doubt that would convince Mr Rushforth’s developer partners. Logically, the planning inspector should find Mr Rushforth’s argument equally unconvincing.

Housing a university

Mr Tomlinson seem rather poorly informed about his own council’s plans for the town centre. The University of the West of England has long-term plans for a campus of up to 10,000 students in Swindon. Those plans are very long term according to the university’s Mr Rushforth, quoted in the Adver.

Ideally we would like to see some headway on [a town centre site] within the next year. Obviously within such a short time period that would be in the form of something like a drop-in centre. It would take around three to four years before we could open the site, and we would be looking at around 1,000 students to begin with, rising to five or six thousand. Given our ambitions we would hope over a 20-year or so period to get something like 10,000 students.

Assuming some of those students are local, it would be an equally long time before there would need to be overspill from a North Star campus, which Swindon Borough Council’s Central Area Action Plan estimates could provide a campus for 7,000. At the alternative site near Coate there’s even more space. Even if the estimate for North Star is rather generous, which it seems to be, so are most universities’ estimates of their own growth potential. The University of the West of England’s ambitions correspond to it growing by 33% from its current 30,000 students — not much evidence of modest predictions there.

So why is Mr Tomlinson worrying about the effect a university might have on housing?

I am concerned about affordable accommodation being hoovered up by landlords wanting to attract students. One of the things that makes Swindon attractive… is the cost of housing and I am worried about the effect a university would have on that, and whether we would see businesses leaving Swindon. If they could build a campus for 10,000 students I would have less concern.

That looks like a bad case of compassionate ignorance to me. Being concerned for the socially disadvantaged may be a virtue; ignorance of the plans of an administration that he was, until the end of last week, a member, is not.

Very appealing

You’d think that, with the housing market in the doldrums, the likes of Persimmon Homes would have better things to do with their money than going lodging planning appeals at almost the first opportunity. If a council fails to make a decision within a set time (‘non-determination’ in planning jargon) the planning laws allow six months to appeal. Persimmon have waited just one month to lodge an appeal against Swindon Borough Council’s failure to make a decision on their plans to surround Coate Water with concrete.

Just how many developments in a single town does one developer need in a falling market?

Packing ’em in at Coate

Packing houses in, that is. With even the ever-optimistic Mr Bluh admitting that residential development around Swindon is slowing, you might think that the pressure to concrete over the area around Coate Water might have eased. Not so. The Swindon Gateway Partnership (Persimmon and Redrow) is back with revised plans for 1,550 little boxes houses and a mystery university. It’s good to read that the council don’t intend to let the developers get their way until there’s evidence that the prospect of a university occupying the site is reality rather than fantasy. With public funding of universities stagnating (apart from what looks like a pre-election spending binge during the current financial year) that’s shouldn’t be too soon.