In Buxton, Mark Cocker spoke to local councillors Madeline Hall, Rachael Quinn and Keith Savage about how we rethink the future of brownfield redevelopment
Both the Labour Party and the Tories are insistent that central to their plans for economic renewal is the building of new homes. There is a degree of rivalry about how many hundreds of thousands each will deliver, but focussing on the numbers avoids scrutiny of how this addresses Britain’s long-term housing requirement. By using construction volume as the only yardstick, precise details of housing need are ignored.
There is also the underlying assumption that home-ownership is the universal goal. More than one-third of British households live in rented accommodation and the private sector has grown by more than 60% this century. The shortage of good quality rental housing must be addressed. In short, we need to ask what sort of housing should be built, where and by whom, in a post-Covid-19, post-Brexit Britain.
Another key consideration is Britain’s status as the twelfth-worst nation (out of 240) when it comes to biological integrity. England is seventh from bottom. State-based conservation has been delivered through a process designed by Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government. In its day this was a radical innovation. Despite repeated tweaks over 70 years, using the same blueprint for nature has manifestly failed to secure an environment worthy of a civilised people.
This country therefore faces two simultaneous crises: one of housing need and the other of environmental loss. Our planning system currently fails to meet this national challenge that bears down now on all the political classes in Britain.
The north Derbyshire town of Buxton is wrestling with the future of one particular site that goes to the very heart of the problem. Hogshaw has a specific history. Pretty much in the centre of the town’s residential area, it was until the 1970s the official tip. Quite what contaminants are in the soil is unclear, but asbestos in high volume and engine oil are known to lie below the surface, not to mention decades of household refuse and all its toxic metabolites. With a railway line on one side and a stream on the other, Hogshaw currently has almost no vehicular access. Yet for decades it has been used constantly by adjacent residents and is crisscrossed by a complex of footpaths.
Over the years the site has taken on the character of scrub woodland, represented especially by two pioneer species, birch and willow. They are respectively the third and the second most invertebrate-rich tree species in Britain. Only oaks have a higher ecological value. As a consequence, these trees are full of breeding birds, including five Red-listed and two Amber-listed species such as song thrush, bullfinch and willow warbler.
The soils are poor and ironically perfect for an almost continuous summer carpet of common flowers: ragwort, rosebay willowherb, various clovers, eyebright, knapweed and avenues of bramble. The profusion of colour in summer outshines any of Buxton’s formal parks. The blackberry, raspberry and gooseberry bushes produce wild fruit by the tub full, and the whole area is beloved by nectaring insects, most notably the nationally scarce bilberry bumblebee. There is also one unexpected botanical rarity: a localised patch of a beautiful orchid, the broad-leaved helleborine. In short Hogshaw is both an enclave of scruffy suburban detritus and a beautiful place full of biodiversity.
Hogshaw includes a ‘rec’, a well-maintained and much-loved football pitch-sized play space that is flat, safe and in constant use. The wider site is equally well-used by residents for dog-walking and exercise. A local group has self-declared part of it as a nature reserve, while children have opportunities for free-range play and Hogshaw is dotted with dens and other installations. One thing that we have surely learned from the pandemic is that all communities need spaces like Hogshaw for mental and physical health. If we lose them, we can never get them back.
Why, then, would anyone give up something so precious? The story is long and complicated, but it comes down to the pressures on local authorities to set out plans for land use and to meet government-imposed house-building targets. Much of Hogshaw is owned by High Peak Borough Council, which is also the planning authority. Five years ago, after much discussion, the council agreed a Local Plan which set aside most of the Hogshaw site for housing development. The rec was deliberately excluded from development and the understanding was that it would be protected.
At that time there was little serious argument about the future of ‘brownfield’ sites; the land, it was assumed, had been spoiled and neglected and new development would improve and ‘tidy up’ such sites, which was a far better option than the trashing of green belt land. This is precisely what the planning regulations instituted by Attlee’s government were intended to achieve: protect the supposedly wildlife-rich countryside from the biological shrinkage inflicted by housing and urban development.
There was a widely held understanding, across political parties, that the contaminated Hogshaw site was an obvious candidate for redevelopment. Additionally, a new road would unlock the site, although the addition of hundreds more cars to an already overburdened road network where air quality is poor is a questionable ambition.
Current government pressure demands that planning authorities identify five years’ worth of land supply for new housing, which for a borough like High Peak equates to over 1,700 new homes. There are thousands of people on the housing waiting list and the only realistic way that new housing on any scale will be built is through deals with private developers. In short, the only measure available to meet the social challenge of adequate local housing is the blunt instrument of capitalism.
The council manages housing stock, but its budget is small and borrowing to build housing is not an option. This puts developers in a strong negotiating position – a situation which the Government is happy to strengthen. A consequence of this is that builders want to build wherever it is most profitable, without regard for what is needed. This undermines local democracy.
In the case of Hogshaw, interested developers have let it be known that they “need” a bigger site than the one identified in the Local Plan – in fact they want the whole site, including the rec, if they are to make a reasonable profit and provide some affordable housing.
Sceptics about Hogshaw’s future, if its sale and development were approved, anticipate that the developers will soon conclude that the costs of ‘decontamination’ work are higher than forecast and seek to reduce the amount of affordable housing provided. This is just one case study. What does it tell us or ask of us at a policy-making level?
In the first instance it highlights the inadequacy of more or less arbitrary targets for new housing imposed by central government. No real account of demographic data informs these top-down goals. Nor do they capture local need.
The 2021 Census data is likely to confirm that the British population is ageing – especially outside of big cities – and that many younger people have left following Brexit. This should have implications for planning – especially housing stock – but will it be taken into account?
In many parts of the country it is also obvious that housing is too expensive and, with many workers on flexible contracts and minimum wage, there needs to be more rented accommodation. This is only going to be provided by local authorities or housing associations. For that to happen, more money needs to be targeted in that direction. Housing could be built to higher standards, meeting stricter environmental targets that would go some way to meeting the needs of those marginalised by the present setup. Some of this would start to target the real issues of housing supply and deliver with a flexibility not expressed in chest-beating slogans like ‘Build, Build, Build’.
Equally, Hogshaw highlights the inadequacy of protecting the green belt at all costs and prioritising brownfield sites, which remains not only a planning objective but is routinely espoused by organisations such as CPRE, the countryside charity.
The green belt is an old idea that carried meaning when there was a rough alignment between the farmed environment and ecological complexity. Modern agro-industry has obliterated that rule of thumb. Hogshaw demonstrates that inner urban areas can sometimes be far richer in nature, not only than the green belt but than many areas designated for natural beauty.
Furthermore, nature doesn’t function in parts; it operates as a unified single system. Our old misunderstanding of this truth has created a country fragmented by competing land uses. Preserving Hogshaw now, as it stands, offers the possibility to rethink aspects of town planning and house provision. Leaving the old tip intact would help create green corridors that allow billions of other British residents, all of them non-human – flowers, trees, plants, insects, birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians – to live within and pass through this beautiful town, its surrounding areas and, ultimately, across the whole landscape.