Old village, new village green

In place of John Major's warm beer on the village green we have superstores, sprawling estates and fractured communities. Is this really how we want to solve the housing crisis?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE slogan is beguiling. As you drive along the one road into Church Langley, a large sign appears, promising "a new look at village life".

Will there be cricket on the village green, and neighbours chatting as they tend their roses? Will bells ring out from a church spire? Such thoughts have lured thousands out to see this self-contained development by the M11 in Essex since the first houses went up five years ago. They come from the estates of Harlow and Cambridge, but also from overcrowded London suburbs along the Central Line, in search of fresh air and green fields.

The reality of Church Langley is rather different. The atmosphere is thick with fumes from construction lorries, the remaining fields have been churned up ready for still more houses to come. There is a spire, of sorts, with a golden weather-vane on top, but it is attached to the roof of a Tesco superstore. If anything, the model is that of a French town, with the main buildings clustered around a central car park.

"That is our high street," says the Rev Michael Hampson, local priest and enthusiast for Church Langley, referring to the wide, neon-lit aisles of the supermarket. Shoppers are loading their cars in the square outside, or crossing it to visit the Florence Nightingale health centre and pharmacy. The building next door is the community centre, where an inter-denominational congregation of around 70 meets on a Sunday morning.

Next along the edge of the car park is the new primary school. A pub and a petrol station fill a third side of the square, and a copse fringes the last. "A village green would have been pathetically impractical," says Mr Hampson. "What we've ended up with is a village square."

Behind it, Church Langley Way begins its long loop through 2,000 new homes, built in a jumble of styles from neo-Georgian to unadorned rabbit- hutch. Way out on the fringes of the development you can buy a four-bedroom Barratt home for pounds 166,000. Don't worry about selling your own place; Barratt will buy it - an offer repeated in various forms by most of the developers who have plied their trade here since 1992, and one that helped many a desperate family to move even in the darkest days of the housing market's collapse.

In 1995 the Department of the Environment forecast that Britain would have 4.4 million more households by 2016, taking the total to 23.6 million. They would need a roughly equivalent number of new homes, and the rising divorce rate meant that 80 per cent of those would be for single people. Last year the Joseph Rowntree Foundation updated the figure, saying immigration from Europe and the needs of the homeless would increase the new households to five million.

The question was, and still is, where the homes should be built. The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, believes that more than half should go up in urban areas, and favours what he calls urban villages - neighbourhoods that will localise the experience of living in a big city.

Developers would sooner have green-field sites on which to build than have to clean up polluted factory land or convert warehouses. The renovation of existing property is much more difficult and costly than putting up rows of identical homes.

What is not often said in this debate is that up to 90 per cent of the new homes we need are already accounted for in county planning guidelines. Under the Conservative administration, planners were encouraged to work with private sector developers by making the provision of community facilities a condition of planning permission. As a result, more than two dozen self- contained developments are being built across Britain. They are usually sited near major road links and aimed at members of the car-owning commuter classes. With its fashionable claim to a village life and its proximity to the M11 and the M25, Church Langley looks like one vision of the future. But does it work?

Ten years ago Harlow council was faced with overcrowding. So it was given permission to allow 3,500 homes to be built out of town, on a wedge of farmland between the A414 and the M11. Outline planning consent was granted on condition that the developers incorporated community facilities. The consortium of developers that took on the project chose its slogan, and called the place Church Langley after two ancient footpaths.

So far, 2,000 homes have been built. The first went up in 1992, and the next year Mr Hampson was sent by the Church of England to serve the fledgling community from a temporary cabin paid for by the developers. "I approached them on their own territory," said Mr Hampson. "I said: 'You want people to move in? You need community life. Spend a few thousand on sticking a cabin here and it will treble your sales.' They know that if they plant shrubs along the side of the road they'll sell houses. Doing this, I've learnt that the profit motive isn't automatically evil."

MR HAMPSON became treasurer of the residents' association and applied the same principles in raising pounds 500,000 for the community centre. "We had money from Tesco, and from Nortel [an electronics firm based just outside the village], from the Foundation for Sports and the Arts."

Now the community centre is full every night, with activities ranging from karate and aerobics to line dancing and short-mat bowls. There's even a meeting of the Socialist Workers' Party, which seems out of place in an area that once worshipped Mrs Thatcher and now cherishes Blair's caring capitalism.

The one thing that most people there do have in common is that they have recently decided to buy a house. Commuters form the dominant tribe in the village, using the motorway or Harlow railway station. But the outline permission also insisted that 23 per cent of the homes went to housing association tenants.

That upsets some of the private home owners, who have complained to the council. Others want to have the name Harlow removed from their addresses. The former chief reporter of the Harlow Star, Steve Farrar, said the village was "more of an attitude than an actuality". By insisting on being seen as separate, the residents were behaving "like the sulky teenager in the supermarket who doesn't want anyone to think he's with his mum".

CRIME figures for the last three months show that while some areas had more than 180 crimes, Church Langley was the lowest with 42. But then the building work is only half completed.

Mr Hampson said there was "a constant rumble" of complaints about the expansion, and the phrase "a new look at village life" was now being played down. "The word village can be a bit prejudicial. People have dreams about what it means."

A spokeswoman for Harlow council admitted there had been objections: "The plans for expansion did not always get mentioned by the developers when people came to buy, and they didn't show up on the searches."

Some residents claim to have been misled about the amount of open space that would be left. "I asked my solicitor to search because I liked the countryside around me, and there was nothing," one woman told a council meeting earlier this month.

Now the council hopes to persuade developers to put more information into their show homes. "Church Langley is a fine place to live," said the spokeswoman. "But it is not a rural idyll."

Indeed not, says Stephen Barrie, a 28-year-old publican who moved into the Potters Arms with his wife Sharon seven months ago. "They try to portray it as having a community spirit, but this is still very much a place where people don't speak to each other. Everything has to be organised for them."

There were very few regulars at the pub, and not much happening after dark. Customers had advised Mr Barrie against trying to run theme nights. One man said: "If I want to go out for a meal I'll get my wife to come down to the City, and take her out to eat there."

The Potters Arms is right next to the primary school, an ugly building which opened in September. It has 120 pupils, with 300 to come, and more construction work to be done - so the muddy fields behind the school are enclosed by wire fencing. Inside it is calm and pleasant, with open-plan classrooms full of natural sunlight.

Chris Rippon, the headmaster, said the parents and children were working together "like a dream", largely because they felt like pioneers. There was no graffiti and hardly any litter to be seen, apart from the industrial rubbish scattered by the construction lorries. Everything was shiny and new - but even the great housing disasters of the 1960s felt fresh once.

"People thought that new housing was the bright future then," he said. "But that turned out to be a nightmare. I do hope that Church Langley will not turn out to be a nightmare."

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