The Government has ambitious house-building targets of 300,000 homes a year, and while these homes are much needed in many areas, the fundamental importance of building communities is too often forgotten.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. From the post-war building boom that saw council estates and whole communities transferred out of city areas to more recent large new estates, for too long, too little thought has gone into creating communities.
This awful pandemic has been traumatic. However, as we come through it, we have a real opportunity to build a better, fairer country led by local communities. This should see powers around the planning and creating of places, and all this entails, handed to local areas. Decisions should be made by the people who live there so that they can engage with and invest in their own neighbourhood.
So what makes a community and what do communities in England need today?
We all know and can feel what makes a good community.
It means having friends nearby and having access to all the things you need and rely on every day, such as a job, shops, schools, leisure centres, doctors’ surgery, parks, public transport and places to meet with others and share stories, ideas and build friendships.
It could be rural or urban, a small village or part of a major city – but they all share common themes that unite communities wherever they are situated.
Rather than a few token local facilities, we need to rethink how we build great places that give thought to where residents will work, where they will shop, where they will exercise and where their children will go to school.
We also need to think about green infrastructure, making communities sustainable and what is the best mix of housing for that area, rather than which will make the most profit. The aim should be to have healthy and happy communities that allow residents to flourish – economically, physically and mentally.
How can we shape great local places? The first thing we need to look at is the link between housing and employment. Moving an individual closer to where they work improves lives and communities.
The benefits are significant. Cutting commuting time gives someone more time to spend in their community or with their family.
It’s also more sustainable. Walking to work requires no car, train or underground, delivering a massive saving in infrastructure costs and reduction in carbon emissions.
But as well as all this, it means that the ‘work community’ is part of the ‘home community’. This helps to build communities that work together to improve their own quality of life and contribute to making sure their neighbourhoods are successful and can thrive.
To build a community or network there needs to be a focus where people typically make friends, usually the workplace or school. Businesses can also be part of this, supporting local charities, schools and other places, and becoming involved with their employees and families in a way they couldn’t be if their workers were based across multiple areas.
Local to me in Bedfordshire is the town of Ampthill, home to some 12,000 people and in many ways the perfect example of a great local place.
It has a range of shops, half a dozen pubs and restaurants, good schools, a leisure centre nearby, excellent country park, good bus connections and a nearby mainline station.
While there is a good local employment offering in Ampthill, many of its residents still commute to London, or by car to Milton Keynes and Cambridge for work. Commuting will clearly always be part of employment opportunity, even necessity. However, we need to avoid the creation of huge dormitory communities.
During much of 2020, prior to the latest lockdown, it was fascinating to see how much busier Ampthill was during the week, as people’s behaviour and habits changed. Coffee shops were full, local trade was up, and more people were out and about during the day.
This was great to see, and should become the norm post-pandemic, with more home working and less five-day-a-week commuting.
What communities need to make great places is access to a range of shops and facilities and sustainable transport options (walking, cycling routes and public transport), where the car is the last resort.
There will still be a need for ‘regional’ facilities such as large shopping centres, hospitals, universities and other major employment sites, for which a level of commuting would be needed.
The current planning system needs to be strengthened so that council and residents can look at developments holistically, rather than in isolation, and assess how specific sites fit in with the overall objective of benefiting and improving the local community. We also need to build housing where employment is and locate employment where housing is available.
COVID-19 will have brought about rapid societal change, transforming people’s attitudes, behaviour and aspirations in what they want from their local community.
They will have appreciated their local areas more, having spent more time there appreciating what is on offer, particularly parks and the countryside (and getting to know their neighbours and neighbourhoods).
Now, some may recognise the need for more space within the home and nearby, such as places to exercise or for their children to play. For others it will be having people around to support each other, not just those who are vulnerable but also for families needing childcare. Or it could be being closer to services such as doctors, schools, shops and parks, and not being dependent on public transport or cars.
The changes brought about by the pandemic need to be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat to how we live and go about our daily lives.
We also need to think more of urban living, particularly creating attractive places for those seeking to downsize and be closer to facilities, in other words town centres. Replacing some of those offices and retail units which will be vacant will help to support urban regeneration and minimise the need to build on greenfield sites.
We now have an opportunity to improve how we approach development and place making in our country, while at the same time capitalising on the huge health and environmental benefits that this will offer.
Government policy should recognise this. While there is a role for some strategic thinking on a national scale, we need to devolve planning and delivery of places – alongside all the other key aspects of places, such as education, skills, employment, health, environment, transport and sustainability.
Ultimately it is at a local level that great places can be built, driven by local communities working together with their councils.