Monday, July 07, 2003

Eight months ago I did my best to get chosen for a job that almost no-one else wanted. If that was mad, it gave me good grounding for what was to follow. To my surprise I was elected as a district councillor representing the village of Hook in Hampshire.

Hook was little more than a hamlet in 1980. Today, 20 years later, it is literally 20 times bigger. Housing estates have proliferated. I suspect that there is a higher proportion of space devoted to parks in Central London than in Hook. We still have just the one school, which is expected to take on ever more pupils.

The problem is the government’s insistence on building more and more houses in the country. The more that are built, the less land left to build on – and yet the greater pressure from central government to build still more.

The issues are poor guidance, poor and declining infrastructure, at best medium quality developments, and a government that talks about “… sustainable communities … good schools … good public transport” according to John Prescott - but focuses on building houses. Lets cover each of these in turn.

The guidance from government - the so-called Planning Policy Guidance documents - is an appalling mixture of vagueness and specifics.

For example, according to the guidance, certain sites should support the building of at least 30 dwellings per hectare (about 2 acres). But there is no definition of what is a dwelling. Is it a one-bedroomed apartment? Is it a five bedroomed house? Other sites with “good public transport” are expected to support over 50 “dwellings” per hectare.

We’ve recently had a case where a developer applied to build on a site at a density of about 60 dwellings per hectare. Among other things, they justified this and the paucity of parking spaces on the basis that Hook has excellent public transport links as demonstrated by bus-stops and a train station. And their appeal was granted by a government inspector.

My son travels by train every day to Guildford on the 7.39 from Hook, changing at Woking with a few minutes to spare. Two episodes demonstrate just how “excellent” these links are.

On November 25th the 7.39 was cancelled.

On November 26th it was cancelled.

On November 27th it was cancelled.

On November 28th it was cancelled.

On November 29th it was cancelled.

On December 2nd it was cancelled.

On December 3rd it was cancelled.

On December 4th it was cancelled.

On December 5th it was cancelled.

On December 6th he was fortunate enough to be ill and unable to travel.

On December 9th the service was cancelled. And the 10th. And the 11th.

On January 6th it ran very late and he missed his connection.

On January 7th it ran very late.

On January 8th it ran very late.

On January 9th it was very late.

On January 13th the Woking connection was cancelled.

More perceptive readers may have spotted a pattern by now. They may also be questioning whether this is an important train, and I’d like to (a) thank them for that question and (b) point out that – when this train is on time – it gets to Waterloo at 8.35, in almost perfect time for an underground connection into London to arrive for a 9am start to one’s working day. In other words, this is the main commuter service.

This is not, however a rant against the train service. Well, not much.

I drive every day to work in the Thames Valley. I leave home at 7.30 and arrive in the office 40 minutes later. The same journey by train or bus takes at least twice as long. I recently phoned up our local bus company to find out how I could travel by bus to Reading. The two alternatives are either to leave at 6.27 and arrive at 8.04 or leave at 8.04 and arrive at 9.34. In other words, a 90 minute journey to replace a 25 minute drive by car. Guess which most people choose?

The Deputy Prime Minister spoke on Wednesday 5th February 2003 about “good public transport.” Where is it?

How about the houses that are built? How good are they?

The answer is that they are not too bad. I was talking to a developer the other day who said that the houses his company is building will last for about 70 years. Today on this island we have many houses that are hundreds of years old and still going strong despite quaint designs, low wooden beams and old or no technology. They have long outlived their designers and builders. Yet nowadays we build houses that will last less long than the average lifespan of a newborn baby. One day, my son, none of this will be yours. It will have fallen down. This is probably just as well, since it’s apparently acceptable to build in areas that are subject to flooding “once in a century”.

But worse, by far, is the dreary sameness of these estates. Yes, each individual house looks crisp and neat. But by making it so easy for construction companies to build estates – and so hard for individuals to obtain land and build – we have ended up with vast tracts of cookie-cutter construction, with few variations of brick or tile. I live in one of these estates.

It’s impossible to imagine that any of these will ever become listed buildings.

Worse is the foolish drive to ever greater housing density. We do not need another London (or another Hull) in Hampshire. We do not want our city children to have to travel to Europe to enjoy a day in the country. On one recent development, the “detached” houses were initially planned to be extremely close together. When it was discovered that many had fireplaces and chimneys, the layout had to be reworked simply because of the few extra inches the chimneys needed on the outside. One wonders whether it’s the houses that are detached or the planners.

The government talks about Planning. They don’t mean planning – they mean paving: paving over our fields, our hills and our dales. They tell developers not to provide too many parking places, but public transport in the countryside is so poor that there is often no practical alternative to the car.

It is time to stop.

The infrastructure no longer works adequately. Before we give consent to any more green-field developments, we must build more schools. We must have trains we can depend on. We must have buses that travel where and when they’re needed. And we must above all prioritise brown field development.

The Government – and in particular the Deputy Prime Minister – will tell you it’s critical for us to build more houses. But behind the pretentious political pontificating is a wilful ignorance of the devastation being wrought forever on our green and pleasant land. Although the Deputy Prime Minster claims the government is against “urban sprawl”, such immense pressure is being put on District and County Councils that they are being forced to consider eliminating strategic gaps between towns and villages which were put in place precisely to guard against sprawl.

Now, if you are living in the city and reading this you might be thinking that it’s hypocritical for someone who enjoys living in the country to stop others from having that enjoyment. But ask yourself these questions. Do I want my children to be taught in overcrowded classrooms in schools extended piecemeal? Where is the government money for public transport? Without it, do I want to risk being regularly late for work? Do I want to live in a place where because of government diktat there is no parking for the car I need because public transport doesn’t work? Will we really make life in the city better by making life in the country worse?

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