To tackle the housing crisis, there is consensus that we need to build a lot more houses - maybe up to 200,000 a year by 2020. We don't disagree. We need affordable homes and we need to accommodate the expected growth in the English population - another 8 million by 2040.
But we do want these houses to steer clear of sensitive sites like Lodge Hill (now, thankfully, subject to a public inquiry - see here). And, we also want developers to create communities which people want to live in and where they have contact with nature.
This is why I am so excited by Kingsbrook - a sustainable urban extension to Aylesbury which includes 2,450 new homes, new schools, community facilities and employment land.
Much contemporary development on greenfield land makes provision for green infrastructure, following the example of developments such as Cambourne, close to where I live in Cambridgeshire. Yet, what marks out Kingsbrook as distinctive is the extent and quality of the planned green infrastructure, and the way that wildlife-enhancing measures are embedded into the fabric of the built environment, not just left to the public open space. Kingsbrook’s green infrastructure will include orchards, hedgehog highways, newt ponds, tree-lined avenues, fruit trees in gardens, bat, owl and swift nesting boxes and nectar-rich planting for bees. It also includes more than 100 hectares of wildlife-rich open space, accessible to all residents.
The plans are impressive and it almost makes me want to move to Aylesbury - I have my eye on one of the plots close to the proposed sand martin bank.
I met the team behind the project a fortnight ago. It was good to see the plans and to go on site to get a sense of what will be created.
The project is over a decade in the making and is principally a partnership between Barratt Developments and Aylesbury Vale District Council. The RSPB became involved in 2011 and since then we have deepened our collaboration both with the project but also with Barratt as a business.
I hope and expect that this project - with construction due to begin this summer - will become a beacon for future housing developments. While meeting future housing needs, we must find ways to meet the needs of wildlife as well. Kingsbrook gives us clues as to what is needed for this to happen. Here, I outline what I think are the key lessons for housebuilders, policy makers and local authorities.
Lesson 1. The housebuilder, Barratt Developments, is concerned with profit margins rather than just chasing the volume of output. Barratt believes that people will be attracted to a nature-friendly development and that it makes economic sense for them. They may see this either through a price premium or a faster rate of sale, or possibly both.
Lesson 2. Previous planning policy on eco-towns (2009) required “Forty per cent of the eco-town’s total area should be allocated to green space, of which at least half should be public and consist of a network of well managed, high quality green/open spaces which are linked to the wider countryside.” Kingsbrook shows that 50% green space, excluding private gardens is achievable.
Lesson 3. The local planning authority, Aylesbury Vale District Council, recognises the value of nature to people and employs ecologists in a Green Spaces Team (as featured in our report Planning Naturally). This enables the council to get the most ecologically out of developments such as Kingsbrook and gives it credibility in refusing proposals that don’t meet the high standards required. AVDC’s Green Spaces Team supports itself financially by carrying out work for other local authorities. This is one way that councils can get access to the right expertise, but it does mean that the expertise is spread thinly. The Government needs to consider how specialist skills such as ecology are best supported by local authorities.
Lesson 4. Kingsbrook shows what can be achieved by willing partners even without an up-to-date local plan in place. For most planning authorities, the best way to ensure that development is nature-friendly, is to have planning policies that set high standards. Local authorities such as Exeter City Council have led the way with high design standards in supplementary planning documents, allowing them to require developers to do more for nature. Again, there are more details in Planning Naturally. Perhaps the biggest barrier to other local authorities following suit is a perception that such policies would prove a prohibitive cost burden to developers. Kingsbrook shows that this need not be the case, but rather that nature-friendly development can add value.
Kingsbrook is a 15 year project, but its impact could be immediate if others become curious about their ambitions. The pioneering team behind this project deserve huge credit - they offer hope that we can give both people and wildlife a home. With just 80 days until the General Election, I hope that politicians sit up and take note.
What do you think about the Kingsbrook development?
It would be great to hear your views.
Gary - I too hope to meet up locally to talk this through some day. Thanks again for airing your concerns.
Martin many thanks for taking time to reply. I do appreciate your response. If you can contain your excitement for a while I look forward to meeting you in the local some time in the future so we can review all the promises that have been made about this development. I wonder what conditions are set for redress should it be needed.
They used to say this about our area by the way...........
‘development of this area would result in serious damage to, and the possible destruction of its most valuable habitats and significant harm to its overall ecological value....mitigation would be inadequate against this loss.’
‘the option of integrating development with the Broughton Crossing area would lead to a significant decrease in existing biodiversity’ Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes Biodiversity Partnership says
choosing ‘would have a highly negative effect on one of the most valuable biodiversity hotspots around Aylesbury.’
Sorry not to reply until now, Gary, I have been on leave today. From your comment, it sounds like you live close by so I’m not surprised you’re worried about the upheaval this big development will bring to your neighbourhood. I live in Cambridge which has been been expanding dramatically for the decade that I have lived there and continues to expand. Yet, I do, of course, appreciate the difference between development in an urban vs rural setting.
And you’re right to point out the contrast in our position between the Kingsbrook development and the proposals at Lodge Hill – let me assure you, the two situations could hardly be more different. At Lodge Hill, the council and developer ignored national and local policy and decided a nationally important protected site for nightingales was a great place to put new housing – in spite of independent advice from a planning inspector that less damaging sites were available. At Aylesbury, the council brought forward this development through the Regional and Local Plan process, granting planning permission only after consultation with local communities and organisations like ourselves.
The RSPB didn’t influence the decision of whether or not to grant permission – as you say, we need the houses, and we were happy this development wouldn’t affect high value places for nature. Nor does it matter remotely who is behind which development - we will always oppose development that risks harming the most precious sites for nature and the special wildlife that relies on them, Lodge Hill being a prime example.
There is one certainty in all this: hundreds of thousands of houses will be built all over the UK in coming years (and on your point about affordability, up to 35% of the dwellings to be provided on Kingsbrook will be delivered through a Housing Association as affordable housing to meet local needs). We could sit and watch, or work with major developers like Barratt to make that new housing more nature friendly. I believe we need to find ways to work positively with others to help wildlife and give people a chance to experience it in their everyday lives.
Everyone needs to play a part, developers and local authorities included. It’s just too big for any one organisation to do alone or even the conservation sector as a whole. In some ways it mirrors our work with the minerals sector, such as Cemex which I have spoken about before www.rspb.org.uk/.../together-for-biodiversity-a-natural-partnership-progresses.aspx
We’re looking forward to working with communities and businesses over the coming years, including the residents of this new development as they move in, so that they can also play their part in demanding even better practice from developers and planners in the future.
If we can help Barratt to try something different at Kingsbrook, and by doing so encourage others in the sector to step up and do better themselves, then we are in a stronger position to encourage all developments to work harder for nature and people. We’re going to monitor some of the outcomes of this work over the coming years so we can really understand the difference this could make to wildlife and people.
I hope this helps a bit and thanks again for raising your concerns.
To be honest Martin I'd be more impressed had you taken the trouble to interview some locals but that wouldn't fit in with your business plan I guess. I'm so annoyed by your piece I wont write fully because I couldn't articulate how I feel properly just now. Lesson 1 - doesn't really help with the affordable housing you say is needed does it. Lesson 2 - that is the least we could expect seeing as it was turned down twice by government inspectors on ecological grounds. Refer to your own website front page for a similar story - Lodge Hill. Is it Barratts on that development? Maybe you would be happy then. What about the displaced wildlife? Build some badger, fox, monkjack boxes I suppose. When you move in look over towards Bierton and if you are lucky you may notice a 175 year old hamlet hidden behind the 3 storey buildings. Us locals know we need the houses but your fawning over this development is a bit rich to be honest.
This sounds very encouraging. It is so important to bring people closer to nature and in respect of housing developments, Kingsbrook would seem to be setting the example for doing this. However these urban or suburban reserves/wildlife areas are not easy to operate and manage. The issue of dog walkers needs to be carefully managed and there are always the inevitable vandals, pot somkers and litter louts to be coped with.
Clearly this is not another Rainham Marshes, which is brilliant at combining a really valuable wildlife site with nearby urban areas However it is important to embark on these types of development which include nature "on the door step" rather than have just a mass of seemingly neverendless houses. All credit must go to everyone involved.
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