Raising the roof

Lack of consultation is at the root of rows over new developments. By Penny Jackson
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The Independent Online
In a picturesque village in the heart of Exmoor, local people are unhappy. A house being built on land opposite the 16th-century pub is in their eyes a blot on the landscape. Exmoor National Park and the building company both argue that alterations have been made, better to fit in with its surroundings - and two more houses are planned. This row has been rumbling on for months and, although the area is particularly sensitive, many of the objections are similar to those raised anywhere new homes are planned among old communities. In the village of Luxborough, lack of face-to-face consultations are at the root of the disagreement and hold lessons for all building projects, however small.

The parish and district council passed the plans to Exmoor National Park for final approval. The villagers had faith in the park's planning officers to allow only the most sensitive development and admit they did not fully understand the plans. Most doubts were cast aside when a drawing of a thatched cottage was left on the site, though it turned out it was to be built elsewhere in the village. First signs were not good. Mature riverbank trees were felled, in spite of opposition. Then, 10 months ago, a lorry arrived with a pre-packed timber-frame building. As the house grew before their eyes, villagers started to worry. Anger set in when all work stopped last summer and the building was left shrouded in black plastic. Then they voiced their objections.

The butt of their fury was the national park. Margaret Adams, who spearheaded the protest, says she cannot believe such ugliness has been sprung upon them. "I told them they had betrayed us as custodians of our environment. The house is quite out of keeping. I asked whether anybody monitored these things."

Indeed, this is a question which is raised every time a building fails to come up to local expectations. Local authorities, in fact, rely heavily on individual complaints. Often, though, it is too late unless they are prepared to order drastic and costly changes.

Tony Blake, head of development control with Exmoor National Park, says there are only two members of development control staff for the whole of Exmoor. He acknowledges there have been difficulties with Luxborough but says the developer is in accordance with valid planning permission. He explained that original permission was granted in the Eighties. "We have just produced a design guide for Exmoor and are about to adopt far more stringent planning policies."

There are ways, however, of reducing controversy surrounding new developments in villages and small towns. In West Dorset, they refute the government's planning guidance of five years ago that design is subjective and will be taken care of by market forces. "That view created Nimbys across Dorset," says David Oliver, architect and master planner. "Whenever a piece of land is granted outline planning permission we now produce a footprint plan. We try to get the owner to give this to the purchaser and make it clear we will work with them from start to finish. I will go on site to meet the builders, which is important because the scale of plans means you can read into them what you will."

But it is on the development of old industrial sites that the Government is pinning its planning hopes. They expect some 60 per cent of housing to go on these so-called "brown sites". But a shortage of viable sites makes this an optimistic figure. Current planning requirements stop towns growing organically and this can lead to urban cramming.

Even the largest developers have learnt that consultation is the only sensible course. When Berkeley Homes took over an old industrial site in North Oxford, it was by no means sure of an easy ride from locals. "Residents attended a public meeting to air their views. We had to reassure them we were not producing boxes," says Andrew Saunders-Davies of Berkeley Homes, Oxford.

The arrival of 199 new homes required more than one meeting. Berkeley sent out bulletins, and contact numbers were set up for complaints to be made during the building work. It has paid off. As the squares, courtyards and crescents took shape and promises of an open feel to the development were met, residents warmed to it. "Some of the residents from those meetings are even buying here now," says Mr Saunders-Davies.

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