Housing Blight II

Since posting my tentative exploration of Housing Blight – a phenomena that i thought many people would be unable to relate to; mostly because it’s hard to appreciate why new housing can be a blight on the community it’s imposed on, unless it has happened, or is happening to you, I have been inundated with emails, tweets and people stopping me to talk further about it. Every one, a shared horror story about how a developer where they live or work, has flouted the planning system and reneged on their promise in order to build new housing and it seems this problem is not unique to the UK. Let me share a few: here in Wiltshire, over the summer Wiltshire Council (a large band of “faceless bureaucrats” to quote a neighbour)  have laid off staff in the planning department, so clever developers blasted them with a raft of planning applications, knowing full well that there wasn’t the staff to deal with them in the mandatory 31 days stated, and that parish councillors and wiltshire councillors would most likely be on holiday and therefore any objections were likely to go unregistered. If the council hadn’t dealt with the application within the mandatory time, the developers were free to launch an appeal. It costs in the region of £50k a time for councils to go to court, so they avoid it like the plague and obviously developers know this and play on this weakness in the system for all their worth.  In Devizes a developer applied to build thirty houses, there was strong opposition so he agreed to put £80k towards a community centre and planning permission was agreed based on that promise. However once he’d started building he appealed the amount of money required as his contribution towards the community centre, the appeal was held in his favour, he built his thirty houses and suffice to say – no community centre!  You only have to look at the planning advisory website to realise that developers are laughing all the way to the bank http://www.pas.gov.uk/local-planning/-/journal_content/56/332612/3749791/ARTICLE   – they manipulate the law and due process, like it was a personal plaything and have made a mockery of the planning system. Ultimately ‘money talks’ and the law can’t stop them, and if it does, they’ll play the waiting game and appeal.

We are supposed to have something called ‘localism’ here in the UK, the government even introduced the ‘localism act’ but ironically it has eroded the power of local communities to protect their local environment and their homes and lives, not improved it. Neither the developers nor MPs have to, or are likely to live in these Noddy Town developments that are being built in answer to the Governments rallying cry of ‘build, build, build!’.  If new homes are so desperately needed, then let’s build for the future. Let’s build homes that form a community, that are built to last, that are built to a standard that the developers would want from their own homes, and with features that would make their own families comfortable and happy. Let’s deliver beyond the minimum standards for energy efficiency, let’s invest some of those huge profits in philanthropic building for the benefit of others not ourselves.

I challenge UK  MPs to write a list of what they value most about their own homes and the communities they live – and then get out there and compare this to the new housing estates being built, and to the existing homes that have been ‘blighted’ or impacted by the building of these new homes; the water supply issues, the added impact on local traffic, local resources and then to list what they would be prepared to sacrifice in the name of this insane ‘build now, count the cost later’ policy. I challenge UK MPs to look at all the appeals and broken promises not delivered by developers on new housing over the past five years in their area – I suspect it will make telling reading.  If we are to have a rigorous system in the UK that works to the benefit of local people and the environment, things will have to change, or we will rise out of recession with far greater expenses looming on the horizon. Worse, and possibly already happening – once thriving towns suffering from economic depression will become ghost towns, starved of life by all the many impacts of housing overload, roads under so much pressure people stop going into the towns, tourism being driven away, water at drought conditions in both spring and summer, the expenses of dealing with flooding…. oh there’s a long list. We need GOOD planning, thoughtful planning, this is why our tourist industry thrived and equally why it will die away if we are not quick to act.

Stop thinking about London, London, London. Stop imprinting its unique challenges on the rest of the country! Look around you. Look beyond your cosy little Westminster glee clubs. Soon the only good things about towns and cities in the UK will be in books, they will be stories, myth, legend. Stop over-ruling local planning decisions on the side of your chums (the big fat-cat developers) and stop pretending that you have the best interests of local communities at heart – because a whistle-stop bus tour of Salisbury and its surrounding (once countryside) suburbs would soon put paid to that lie. And from what I hear it’s endemic across the UK. You started it government, you sort it out before it’s too late!

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Flights of Imagination

At Old Sarum, in Hangar 1 just along from the airfield cafe, is a door to a world of legend and history. Entry is £8.50 for adults (sorry, I can’t remember what the childrens entry fee is) and as you walk down the corridor from the shop and reception desk, it’s all very unassuming. You walk into the hangar and find faded and ancient museum exhibits – a dented wing tip of a WW2 plane, a mannekin in a glass case sporting a WW2 flying suit, old photos but as you politely stop to look, and the children are wondering what on earth they are doing here and about to ask if they can go back to the shop to ‘get a plane’, the smell of oil, of grease hits you and you turn to see the hulking bodies of planes, all sorts of planes, fat, thin, young, old; all lovingly restored (or in the process of being so) and ready for young eyes and old hearts to touch, explore and witness for themselves the glory days of aviation. If you’re really lucky one of the founder members of the collection will be there to share their considerable knowledge and expertise and guide you through and answer questions, whilst over the radio the cackle of the live broadcast from the airfields control tower offers an authentic backdrop.

We took my nine yr old, my cousin and her son who is five, and spent a happy hour climbing in and out of the pilot seats, reading the warning signs, admiring the designs and capabilities of each exhibit. Our five yr old guest was taught a valuable life-skill (how to get down a small ladder ie. backwards) and when our guide fished out a shiny pilots helmet with visors and microphone his young eyes gleamed and he beamed from ear to ear, Mr. B. was quite envious but managed to sneak a go himself whilst sat in a Hawk a bit later on! Most horrifying were the missiles (without the evil bits) most wondrous was the rebuilt bi-plane, the first to be flown with it’s beautiful wooden propellor – I’d say the museum is a boys dream but my daughter, my cousin and I all enjoyed it too. The collection consists of test planes preserved at nearby Boscombe Down and covers a wide range of aviation history. As we left, a micro-lite landed ahead of us and an older plane was wheeled out from it’s hangar to be made ready for flying. We went to the airfield cafe and enjoyed tea and biscuits outside so we could watch modern day planes landing and taking off in the autumn grey. It was frankly wonderful.

Seven Miles from anywhere…

Back in 2009 Mike Roberts posted a picture of Imber Court in his blog http://miketoons.blogspot.co.uk/2009/04/imber-village-imber-court.html which reminded me that I would like to go back, having had my first brief glimpse back in the eighties. Imber is often described as a ‘ghost village’ or more recently, and incorrectly by the BBC as an abandoned village. It wasn’t abandoned, it was commandeered by the war department in 1943 as an area for American soldiers to practise military exercises ready for the war in France. Villagers were given 41 days’  notice to leave. They were given no help to find alternative accommodation and have never received compensation. After the war the villagers expected to return but were never allowed back, until a campaign by one man in the sixties, Austin Underwood, who raised awareness in the press and led a protest walk to the village. Now the MOD opens access to the public for a limited number of days a year.

Today, there is little trace of the original cottages and village, those houses that remain sport corrugated rooves and  are accompanied  by breezeblock additions, evidence of continuing military occupation. The roads that lead to Imber, across the sweeping Salisbury plain are littered with warning signs, the plains are beautiful in their hidden danger. The roads, no more than narrow potholed tracks finally curve down into the fold of a hill giving you a view of St. Giles Church, Imber – such a typically English view. The church on the hill, still standing despite military ordinance and manoeuvres and now partially restored and lovingly nurtured by the Churches Conservation Trust, hints at the history of Imber going back to the mid  12th Century.

The dark spaces where windows once were, the sandbags, the tank posts, are all over powered by a sense of indignation, a place like this belongs to people; belonged to people, the stones in the graveyard that are crumbling and askew deserve better and it is a triumph to the dedication of evicted residents, their family and  those who have helped restore the church, or come to make music  there, restore the bells (sold for scrap in the fifties) , or to serve tea and biscuits on open days, maintain the website, put up signs, print leaflets etc., that it speaks so loudly to those who visit. Some places fall to ruin from lack of care or interest but others are so strongly tied to people, so connected that despite the obvious need for the MOD to be able to operate in areas, secluded and secure from public ingress, you can’t help feeling that  Imber was a mistake, an expedient measure but somehow a wrong one. Still people come, are drawn to this place, seven miles from anywhere.

There is a lovely photo film by David White here  https://vimeo.com/13325438 which, if you haven’t been to Imber gives you an evocative glimpse and you can also visit the church website here http://www.imberchurch.org.uk/

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#TorchRelay 2012

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For me the stars of the show were Carnival Arts and the Police. Well done Alex Grant for coming up with a simple and accessible idea for children in schools – to create beautiful silk banners to wave and cheer with – they looked stunning and the children were all very proud of their work. I have seen children from several schools waving their hand-made banners today whilst out and about today. And well done the Police and the MET for really conveying the Olympic spirit by producing a real spectacle, smartly turned out, waving and grinning to all the excited children – giving them a sight to remember. I was hoping for something more inspiring (torch included) than the baggy white track suits, and dowdy brown outfits worn by accompanying out-runners (all three of them). A bit disappointing. There was no space for highlighting the stories behind the chosen runners in the actual relay, or the achievements (if there were any) of the trickle of random people inside the coaches or loping alongside of them. It probably looked more exciting on the television.  Without doubt, the torch relay must have been a nightmare both to organise and execute, and I’m grateful our children got to see it but I’m not sure however if the most prominent message given out from the Olympic torch relay was one we should be giving out. The spirit of the Olympic Games: athleticism, challenge, endeavour and sportsmanship were overshadowed by big brightly branded lorries/coaches/buses. Handing out free bottles of coke to children, certainly didn’t win me over.  Still at least the Police might see a higher rate of new recruits after this, I nearly joined up myself (nice bikes!). Real life should be a better experience than television but in the case of the Olympics I think it’s all been choreographed to look good on the TV soundbites. Or maybe they were all a bit tired by the time they got to us at 6pm today.