Those of you at this month’s AGM would have heard a short talk entitled Towards a New Rural in which Ben Nourse confronted the issue of the huge numbers of new homes being foisted on Essex by central government. Ben is a graduate researcher working with the Cambridge Design Research Studio and studying to become a Master of Architecture in Urban Design. Here is the first of a series of blogs he is sharing with CPRE Essex.
The rural landscape of Essex faces two primary issues: suburbanisation and intensive farming. The former became increasingly prevalent following a speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2017, stating that by 2020, 300,000 new homes are required per year to resolve the UK’s ‘housing crisis’. What does this mean for the countryside of Essex? Well, Essex County Council is obliged to build 136,000 homes over the next 20 years, thus development in the county is arguably inevitable. However, the fundamental issue lies within the mainstream method of development. Alongside urban densification, mainstream rural development consists of the creation of entirely new settlements as well as piecemeal residential expansions into greenfield sites around existing communities. Principally this consists of standardised neo-vernacular housing types, repeated geometrically across the landscape, leading to the fragmentation and shrinkage of habitats and localised cultures.
So where is this happening? The 2011 London Green Belt politically dominates the Essex landscape. It roughly divides the county into unbuildable and buildable halves. With increased transport technology and rising urban house prices, residential development has begun to jump the outer limits of the Green Belt. The fundamental flaw of the Green Belt is that the outer boundary is an arbitrary line, drawn from the distance from the capital. Take two banal wheat fields, one to the north of Chelmsford, one to the south. There is a north-south spatial prejudice; the Green Belt adds additional value to the south irrespective of the physical contents. Currently there is a disproportionate number of proposals in the north, the largest of which is the North Essex Garden Communities, proposing new infrastructure, public amenities and up to 43,000 new homes, which, using the UK average of 2.3 people per household, equates to 100,970 new residents.
Clearly there is a disparity. On one hand the north Essex countryside beyond the Green Belt is considerably more at risk of development. On the other, we must retain the Green Belt, to prevent the further urban sprawl of London, especially since the 1965 realignment of counties after post-war suburban expansion. Moreover, we cannot extend the green belts indefinitely across England, as development is compulsory. Arguably, the north Essex landscape needs added protection to counter the prejudice of the Green Belt.
Beyond the Green Belt, perhaps Essex should impose its own county-wide conservation strategy, tailored to the urban characteristic of sporadic towns and villages. Perhaps instead of restrictive policies, the countryside could be protected through a carefully managed means of cohabitation that focuses on celebration and use rather than preservation. Like the national parks, SSSIs, ANOBs and nature reserves, my research is investigating an alternative type of protected land, consisting of banal countryside that can be ecologically enhanced, remain economically productive and contain permanent settlements.
Location aside, as housebuilding is a county-wide legal requirement, residential development is unavoidable. We still have the opportunity to push councils and developers to create beautiful places that are socially and environmentally beneficial. It is now more than just a question of where. What should we build?