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Time for Essex man to build on the present, not the past

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Between 1801 and 1901 the population of Essex increased fivefold; this century it has increased by a further 50 per cent. If everything built before 1801 had survived it would represent just one seventh of what exists now. For Chelmsford it would represent less than one fortieth. Yet with relentless reiteration, the outrageous 1997 draft of the Essex Design Guide proposes that new development should replicate the Medieval, accretive settlements of pre-nineteenth-century Essex, mimicking their meandering street patterns, their house-by-house irregularities, their jetties, chimneys, jutting gables; their roof pitches, structural spans and materials. The book is replete with unqualified assertions: 'A horizontally proportioned elevation should contain vertically proportioned window openings, whilst a vertically proportioned elevation should contain horizontally proportioned window openings.' Insidious sub-Gordon Cullen sketches portray not some picturesque corner of an old town but, one realises with a shock, suggestions of how to build now.

Unable to face the eighteenth century, what can it make of the twentieth century - or the twenty first? There is no single image of anything remotely modern. There is no concession to the scale, process and technology of economic house building - as practised from the eighteenth century onwards. There is no understanding of social change. With so high a proportion of the proposed 4.4 million new dwellings being for small households there will be a need for flats, yet the nearest possible image is an unbalconied three-storey house.

The first edition of the guide, in 1973, was 'a response to concern about the poor appearance of new housing areas at the time', that is, house- builders' suburbia. The authors feel that, in relation to that (minimal) benchmark they have effected some improvement; by this new edition, it is hoped that the housebuilders can be edged forward another inch. Marginally improving the house builders' work is like marginally diminishing the incidence of bse.

Conceivably the guide might be appropriate to the conservation of some precious pre-nineteenth-century oasis, but to apply its prescription to the process of house-building today cannot - and has not - worked. Quinlan Terry can't do it. Prince Charles can't do it. You can't recreate the wall-to-window ratios, the thick walls with all their detail, the fine glazing bars, the handmade materials, the excesses of grand and tiny scale. By comparison with their exemplars, only their inadequacies are apparent.

While the joining of adjacent houses is encouraged in the name of townscape, the narrow-frontage terrace house is officially disapproved of as being un-Essex. The idea of a rectangular or parallel public space is anathema, as is the repetition of any more than two houses in line. 'Without an abundance of visual stimuli the pedestrian experiences boredom and alienation.' (Speak for youself, Essex man). The guide ignores the rationale that has always underlain housebuilding of any scale at all, not just in eighteenth- century Edinburgh, Bath or London, but in the wealth of simple, rational but satisfying Georgian and Victorian developments that form such a large part of our small towns.

Hoping to be taken as men of the world who understand the realities of the housebuilders' profit, the purchasers' taste, the building societies' prejudice, the authors have adopted a line not of courage but of collusive cowardice. This guide - with its sugary and insinuating images, its avuncular prescriptions - is in fact a brutish implement that will help to perpetuate the destruction of the English town and countryside that its authors profess to champion.

The British public has for too long been short-changed by its pitiable, undersized, substandard housing, the Trabant housing of Europe. Somebody, somewhere must demonstrate an alternative that is of today, without false values, that will enhance, not ape, the historic settlements the essence of which eludes the authors of this abominable guide.

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