Thursday, June 23, 2016

Cultural cleansing

Those of us concerned with the conservation of our built heritage are generally motivated by a concern that were substantial elements that represent periods or events from our past to be lost or substantially damaged, so would our ability to recall the substance and significance of parts of our history and identity.  The term cultural cleansing was used to describe the attempts by Isis to destroy the temple and Palmyra in Syria but this is only at the extreme end of a process that will go on purposefully and accidentally around the world.

Clearly the cultural heritage is at greatest risk at times of regime change when through officially sponsored vandalism or simply neglect buildings and monuments can disappear from the landscape, with littel chance of return.

In the UK the former airbase at Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire represents what Historic England consider to be the best preserved remains from the Cold War in the country. Who knew that? Since the United States Air Force flew out  in 1994 there has been an almost constant debate about how the site should be treated.  This debate has been conducted mainly through the planning system; a succession of plans for the area (Oxfordshire and Cherwell District), applications and appeals supported with evidence in the form of studies, surveys and design briefs.  Without going into the detail of these proposals and decisions, the 'facts on the ground' are ample evidence that the authorities at local and central government levels are indifferent to the future of the site. While many of the buildings and structures have legal protection (Listed Buildings and Scheduled Monuments) and the flying field has been designated a Conservation Area,  a visitor to the site will see new housing encroaching into the hardened cold war landscape, cars being parked on runways/taxiways, businesses being run from Hardened Aircraft Shelters across the site (with their commercial traffic),  the local police force training on the runways, and no obvious way to appreciate the heritage site. In fact an internet search might reveal the minibus tours which are run by volunteers during the summer.

While the site was sold by the Ministry of Defence for about £26 million, this represented the value of the existing housing on the site. The rents from these and businesses has probably paid back this outlay and more - even before the number of houses to be built at Upper Heyford was increased threefold.

Enthusiasm for history has not yet caused the necessary of concern and outrage to safeguard the site, possibly because the Cold War is filed under politics in high stree bookshops, a subject with substantially less appeal.  By the time it becomes important to use the site as an instructional monument to assist in understanding the Cold War and subsequent relations with Russia the site will have been 'cleansed' of its power to inform through changes caused by collective carelessness and indifference carelessness. There remains some hostility to its preservation in the District Council which thought that the scar on the landscape could and should have been removed (like the fate of Greenham Common).

The Expert Panel supervising the additions to the list of World Heritage Sites are aware that the Cold War is not yet represented and recommended that research be carried out to see which transnational sites should be considered to be of 'universal value'.  This research remains to be done and, meanwhile,  the cultural cleansing of Upper Heyford continues making it harder to imagine it being used to perpetrate nuclear war resulting in a possible nuclear holocaust. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Self or custom building - registers and duties

The Housing and Planning Bill became law on 12 May although there will be many further regulations putting flesh on these bones.  Apart from repeating my complaint that this legislation addresses any number of matters that could simply be dealt with by applying new policies and actually includes non-problems while missing the real ones - we should not expect anything less from  Government which believes that the planning system is the cause of so many problems which are actually beyond the powers conveyed by the 1990 Act (as amended).

However, there is section 10.  This greatly improves on the Self and Custom Building Act which imposed a duty on LPAs to hold registers of those interested in self building.

When formally brought into force, the H & P Act will require LPAs to permit serviced plots in numbers to match the numbers of interested individuals and associations of individuals (I was told that this was the Government's attempt to show that co-housing should be encouraged) registering within the previous 12 month period.  While it might be the case that some  of those on the registers will go out and make applications on land to meet their own needs, I cannot see any substantial demand being satisfied without plots/land being reserved on sites allocated in development plans or being permitted on a speculative or ad hoc basis (eg when there is no up to date development plan).

A lack of plots being provided/permitted by the LPA could become a very strong argument in favour of permission being granted on sites brought forward by individuals or groups.

My assumption is predicated on there being enough publicity given to both the registers and the duties that then arise for numbers to reach the levels predicted by the associated lobby groups.  In my village 145 out of about 1000 households said that they would be interested and 50 said that they would be interested in co-housing.There does not appear to be much of a downside to registering - British citizen over the age of 18 - although LPAs can impose a reasonable charge for administering the registers and some are trying to require some local attachment (probably illegal but might be used when distributing plots if insufficient to meet all the registered need).

Finally, to put this in context, the Government wants self and custom building to make a very substantial contribution to housing supply.  The volume builders are unlikely to build more than 50% of the 250,000 dwellings said to be required (DanthePlan is uncertain about this if all new housing was 2 bedroomed - see previous blogs on under-occupation).  The Government is committed to 200,000 new dwellings per year.  When more than this was being built the 'extra' was provided by council house building and small builders.  The latter suffered in the 2007/8  crash and are slow to return but might assist with some of the custom building. Some councils are forming building companies (that might escape the right to buy). However, it will take a monumental effort for  the current level of self building to grow from 10% of 120,000 (ie 12,000) to the 20% of 200,000 (50,000 dwellings) per year that the Government has in its sights.  Let alone the 50% experienced in many other countries.  So get on the register(s) and get building.