Norton St Philip has the close-knit charm of a medieval village. Its stone houses huddle together, wisteria framing their mullioned windows. The George Inn has been serving ale since the 14th century, and from its car park, the view of the cricket pitch is complemented by the church where Samuel Pepys, on his way to Bath, observed: ‘Here is also a very fine ring of six bells, and they mighty tuneable.’
This doesn’t seem the kind of place to embrace a modern development, so what do the residents make of plans to build an estate of 51 houses, a shop and offices in their rural idyll? After all, it will amount to 12% of the existing 325 properties in the Somerset village, and the policy of the local council, Mendip District, had been to permit no more than one new house a year. But Hugo Haig, director of Lochailort Investments, which is developing the site, says there were only five objections to the project.
Plans to develop what is now a derelict chicken factory were first mooted 10 years ago, and how Lochailort finally got the go-ahead where others failed gives an insight into the negotiations that have to be worked through with local communities before the diggers can go in. Mendip’s 10-year target was set at 8,000 homes for its population of 100,000 and, according to planner Ed Baker: ‘We felt developing the chicken factory would bring benefits because the application included a shop, affordable and sheltered homes and contributions to the community such as allotments and a playing field.’ Community involvement was key, as Mr Haig explains.
‘We met the public, the parish council, the school governors anyone who had an interest. Some wanted a new doctor’s surgery, others didn’t; there were appeals to spend money on a new cricket pavilion; some opposed the shop; and there were demands that the affordable homes should be set aside for local people. What everyone agreed on was the need to make the new estate blend in with the village. Robert Adam, who designed part of Poundbury in Dorset, insisted on using the same local stone and a roof-scape that is just as random with tiles of stone and slate.’
Each of the houses, which are for sale through Knight Frank (01392 848856), has a different design, with prices ranging from £250,000 for two bedrooms to £1.6 million for six. Norton St Philip is a relatively small scheme, but, nationwide, the demise of the Regional Development Agencies and uncertainty over the role of their putative successors, the Local Enterprise Partnerships, is making it difficult for councils and developers, let alone the public, to grasp how national or regional policy actually works.
John Beresford, director of development for Grainger Plc, which is building a ‘new village’ of 2,550 houses next to Waterloo-ville, Hampshire, believes: ‘We need a national vision. If you tip the planning system on its head, what happens if the locals object to a project and the council says: “We’ve spoken to the villagers and they say no, so we’re not going ahead”? But that doesn’t mean you should ride roughshod over the locals. Keeping the dialogue open between developers, councils and residents, and accommodating the latter’s needs and concerns, was as critical to Grainger’s success as it was for Lochailort’s.
Hampshire County Council’s housing requirement for 1996-2011 was to build 94,290 homes, yet it has taken Grainger five years of negotiation to agree on the details. Mr Beresford comments: ‘Waterlooville launched a vigorous “Stop” campaign, but we held workshops in which people made their views known. Eventually, the protest group became a resident’s association, eager to make the project work.’
rt had to make a commitment to protect badger setts, so Grainger is creating two nature reserves and liberating a river from its concrete culvert to meander through the site. Forty per cent of the homes will be affordable. ‘The first design we suggested was very contemporary, very Milton Keynes,’ says Mr Beres-ford. ‘The locals absolutely hated it, so we called in Robert Adam, whose designs are more traditional. When we arrived at the final plan, we received only one letter of objection.’