I am not a planner, or an urban designer. I deal with trees. However, trees are part of the planning process, so I am often granted a front row seat when it comes to the process of considering applications. One of the key elements of modern planning, especially following the 2012 reforms, is sustainability. The problem is that this term is not defined. A definition that I have heard is of a self-sustaining system that doesn’t need further input, and does not generate waste.
I recall, back in my days with Dudley Council, visiting a school. The building, solid, form, more than a century old, was to be replaced with a modern, purpose-built facility. The head teacher showed me the site, and I was able to comment on the arboricultural issues. He was so pleased with the proposals, which, he said, would lead to a more efficient building, less expensive to heat. It would only last for thirty years, and need a costly mortgage to cover the works, but this was the way ahead.
I pondered, and wondered whether I was missing something. The proposal was to replace a 100 year old building with one that would last about one third of that time. The environmental costs of demolition, site clearance and building the new facility didn’t seem to factor. The loss of an irreplaceable Victorian building didn’t even enter the radar.
Back in 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron endorsed planning reform, promising in an interview on the BBC’s CountryFile that it would not result in 60 unit developments being imposed on communities. Not quite sure what happened, as this has since occurred in his own constituency, where highways limitations and poor sewage provision were highlighted as concerns. Is this not an issue of sustainability?
Earlier this year, again speaking on CountryFile, Princess Anne spoke of the benefits from small scale developments within villages, which can strengthen local communities, rather than larger scale projects on the edge of towns and cities, which local authorities seem to prefer.
I have been working with a number of local developers and land owners here in Herefordshire, guiding on tree retention within schemes that seem to me to be carefully thought out, and where I am able to provide good quality tree planting landscapes. In these cases, there has been careful consideration of local issues, liaising with local residents, and a desire for consensus. I spoke to one resident recently, faced with a 60 unit development in a paddock backing on to his garden. He pondered whether his concerns would hold any weight, and whether the local authority could influence the outcome, other than endorse the outcome.
Planning is really important. We have to live with the consequences for decades to come. I know that there are occasions when planners seem to apply rules remote from the realities of modern life. I have been in a meeting where a senior planner refused to facilitate first floor office space within a development containing a mix of retail and commercial space, stipulating that it needed to be on the ground floor only (anyone seen the views? I know where I’d rather work!).
However, my conclusions are that the process needs to be carefully considered, to ensure a high standard of design. I recall a comment in the opening speech at Trees, People and the Built Environment, on behalf of Sir Terry Farrell. He stated that whereas the planners and engineers focus on the buildings, it is the space between that matters, especially to residents. Getting it attractive, and filled with green plant cover was his idea of sustainability. I’ll second that.