When I look at Strategic Plans I am amazed at the simple minded, deeply flawed attitudes to village life they display.
The Guildford Strategic plan is a good case in point. Around a third of the population of Guildford Borough lives outside Guildford itself, most live in villages or scattered sites. Most of the villages form part of the greenbelt. They are, in the proper sense of the word, embedded in the greenbelt. They are a natural part of it and essential to its maintenance.
However, nowhere in the plan is here an analysis of what makes a village work carried through to recommendations. The role of the villages in the plan is simply to serve as dormitories for Guildford and for London. As a consequence development is completely out of scale, assumes the existence of infrastructure and takes no account of how a village actually works as a human environment. (This is despite the fact that they apparently went to the trouble of consulting Parish Councils on what makes a village work)
A different problem exists in the National Parks – our other great protected area. Here the problem is second homes. The Chief Executive of one of our great parks has said that, over the last ten years a thousand new or converted dwellings have been put up in his park but the population has increased by one hundred.
The pattern is different but the effect is the same – villages are emptied of daytime residents in the week. It would be naïve to suggest that a village could sustain itself by serving the local rural community, those days are long past, but there are many ways in which villages can be vibrant communities with permanent daytime communities.
My own village has two roles economically:
- It is something of an active tourist hot spot at the weekend with walkers, cyclists, horse riders and those who come simply to enjoy the fresh air. It can be a pain but it supports two pubs, two cafes an ice-cream shop (all in the best possible taste)
- More importantly, powered by the internet, it has sixteen separate businesses from natural health through computer maintenance to the supply of industrial solvents. It also has a range of sole trader consulting and service activities. These businesses are here because the people who run them want to live here and the web enables most of them to work effectively from here.
We don’t live in some splendid rural isolation, we are part of the wider world and connected to it.
The outcome is that we have a daytime community which supports a good Co-op with a post office, a church, a doctor’s surgery and, most importantly, a walk to school infant’s school. The same basic pattern is true of many of the villages around here. Where it isn’t, it is generally the loss of the village school that has made the difference. So what housing does my village need? It doesn’t need to be a dormitory, it needs:
- Genuinely affordable housing so that young families can stay here. The question is how do we release the modest amount of land needed at an unimproved price and build housing that will stay affordable ( answers on a postcard please)
- Smaller flats in the centre of the village so that the elderly can trade down (releasing larger homes) and stay here
- Not a lot more housing of any type – maybe 15% over ten years
- Some (farm-based) office and workshop space to enable the growth of our small businesses.(The space exists).
Does that make me a NIMBY? No, I am not against development even in my own back yard. Communities develop or they atrophy and die. I am against the creeping suburbanisation of our rural spaces. We need a planning system that is based on the needs of the local community and sensitive to its environment. I hear the rhetoric about localism – I don’t see it in action.
The important point is that successful villages, and there are many, have a life of their own and that life is the most important thing that sustains the greenbelt for the rest of us to enjoy.