As Bracknell is rebuilt, the government is planning a series of garden villages and towns. Colin Marrs reports on how planners have learned from the past and are looking to the future
Standing at the top of Ocean House – one of the tallest buildings in Bracknell town centre – you get a sense of the scale of regeneration under way. The low-density post-war housing beyond the ring road is marked by generous pockets of green space. But inside the Tarmac cordon, virtually none of the town centre is untouched by ant-like construction workers.
Bracknell, in Berkshire, was originally designated a new town in 1949, and is now the first to be comprehensively demolished and rebuilt. BDP’s masterplan aims to provide up to 75,000m2 of retail space, 12,000m2 of bars, cafés and restaurants, plus 60,000m2 of office space. It will also include new homes, public realm and leisure space. This major regeneration neighbours public buildings such as a police station, magistrates court and health centre, tackled in earlier masterplan proposals but not part of the current scheme.
Ministers have already pledged millions of pounds to assist plans for 14 garden villages and 10 garden towns
As Bracknell renews its core, central government is providing support – and money – for a new wave of garden villages and towns. Ministers have already pledged millions of pounds to assist plans for 14 new garden villages (each containing up to 10,000 homes) and 10 new garden towns (of more than 10,000 homes). So what lessons are the architects in charge of designing the new settlements taking from the UK’s previous waves of large-scale development?
More than 25 years after civic leaders realised they had a problem with their town centre, the Bracknell project is finally rising from the ground.
‘The perception of the new town was that it wasn’t a desirable place to visit,’ says Victor Nicholls, assistant chief executive of Bracknell Forest Council. ‘The central area was windswept, unwelcoming and in decline. The size of shop units didn’t work for modern retailers and were full of asbestos so were difficult to expand.’
BDP was brought on board in 2006 by Bracknell Regeneration Partnership, a 50:50 joint venture between Legal & General Capital and Schroder UK Real Estate Fund, working in partnership with the council. The practice’s appointment paved the way for the abandonment of a 2004 plan by Richard Rogers Partnership (now RSHP), the centrepiece of which would have been a covered, landscaped town square area featuring retail and leisure facilities.
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Concerns over its viability, on the eve of the credit crunch, prompted the rethink, according to BDP architect director Garry Wilding. ‘The scale of public investment was very big, so we were asked to check if there was another way to make the town centre regeneration work,’ he says.
According to Nicholls, public opinion had also turned against the Rogers approach. ‘It was spectacular, but it would have been closed off at night,’ he says. ‘It felt like a shopping centre rather than a town centre.’
Until now, Bracknell has been dead after 6pm, with a McDonald’s, Burger King and Wetherspoons virtually the only options for anyone seeking a night out on the town. This was partly the result of a failure to build the ‘social and entertainment’ zone marked on a revised 1963 town centre masterplan.
But Bracknell has been as much a victim of changing economic leisure trends as of its unwelcoming design, says Wilding. ‘Social habits have changed from the 1960s – people want to shop as an experience, taking time out for lunch or a coffee.’
Reflecting this evolution, the BDP scheme includes a richer mix of uses, with the introduction of more cafés, bars and restaurants. The intention is not just to boost the night-time economy but to improve the daytime shopping experience. It is also likely that the full amount of office space outlined in the masterplan will be slashed, reflecting the role technology has played in reducing demand from occupiers.
BDP has adopted the ‘open streets’ approach it used successfully on urban regeneration projects at Belfast’s Victoria Square redevelopment and at Liverpool One. ‘We wanted to give the town back to its streets,’ Wilding says.
Wider, more welcoming, streets and a small-scale arcade will provide long sight-lines to a series of public spaces, Wilding says. Pre-war street patterns have been restored, reinstating logical linkages that had been removed during the 1950s when the new town swept away an existing settlement of 5,000 residents. Small public squares in the core are designed to encourage more social interaction, while larger gathering places at the periphery will host public performances and events.
One of the effects of the ‘open streets’ doctrine is to create separate buildings and smaller blocks. This, says Nicholls, overcomes one of the major problems faced by the post-war new towns. ‘All the buildings have aged at the same time,’ he says. ‘With the new approach, the blocks are more capable of being renewed individually’. Only time will tell whether future generations of developers gain an appetite for such incremental change.
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In another departure from the architectural philosophy of the new towns, a wider range of building materials is being adopted. The exteriors of car parks and a new store for Fenwick will have ‘living frontages’. A new cinema block will be clad in a polycarbonate translucent material, with integrated lighting to activate the building in the evening.
‘Ten years ago, Bracknell town centre was a hard, grey environment dominated by concrete,’ Wilding says. ‘Introducing more variety increases legibility, helping people find where they are.’
Roger Ludlam, club steward of Bracknell Bowling and Social Club, moved to the town as a babe in arms in 1955 when his father’s firm relocated from London. He is impressed by the emerging BDP scheme, and has no regrets about the demolition of the existing town centre. ‘In the early days,’ he says, ‘the town centre was quite modern and well-liked, but it eventually had nothing to offer apart from charity shops. You can see why people would have to go to Reading and Camberley to do major shopping trips.’ On the emerging scheme, he says: ‘I think it will be wonderful when it is finished – bring it on.’
What is perhaps more surprising, in this age of sustainability, is the importance still placed on making Bracknell attractive to drivers. As a result, efforts are being made to improve the visual appearance of the ring road.
‘It has been a series of dead frontages up until now – mainly back-of-house loading areas for town centre shops,’ Wilding says. ‘It made sense in some ways, but the experience was not attractive as you drove past.’
Parking courts at the back of homes have not worked. People end up parking on streets that were not designed for them
Economic necessity means that improvements to the new town road networks, rather than a scaling-back, are the only sensible approach, according to Simon Russian, development manager for Legal & General. Bracknell faces competition for workers and shoppers from other towns in the M4 corridor. The volume of cars in the new Waitrose car park, which Nicholls says have been attracted from Reading and further afield, seem to show the economic value of redevelopment.‘Bracknell is still a car town,’ says Russian. ‘It was a nightmare to drive in at the weekends, and we need to do everything we can to make it a location of choice.’
The problem of the motor car is also at the front of the minds of those designing the new generation of garden settlements. Patrick Clarke, director at engineering firm Aecom, has been working on designs for a 6,000-home garden village at Welborne near Fareham, for which outline plans were submitted in March.
‘There has been an awful lot to learn from the recent experience of trying to build places with fewer cars,’ he says. ‘The recent trend of creating rear parking courts at the back of homes – such as at Poundbury, where home frontages are moved forward to the pavement on narrow streets – has not worked. People don’t like parking in these cramped car parks, so they end up parking on streets that were not designed for them.’
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Essentially, the concept Clarke criticises was an evolution of the discredited Radburn layouts favoured by the new towns. Here, home frontages overlooked pedestrian walkways, creating a confusion between private and public space and encouraging crime. In Welborne, wider residential streets are planned to allow residents to park on the streets outside the front of their homes. ‘What we have been trying to do is increase the amount of space given to trees while providing a realistic level for cars,’ Clarke says.
Such moves signal the defeat of the optimistic assumption – crystallised in planning guidance from 2000 – that better access to local shops and the introduction of walkable neighbourhoods would inevitably reduce reliance on the car. The original new town philosophy idealistically embraced the car for the freedom it would bring; the new generation of urban masterplanners is being forced to accommodate cars as pragmatically as it can.
The new towns did, however, leave some enduring transport design legacies. Many of the forthcoming garden settlements include plans for segregated cycle routes – a feature of the early wave of new towns such as Stevenage and Harlow (even if the concept was often watered down). And, as the nature of retail changes, pedestrianisation – a major feature of post-war planning – remains the prevailing orthodoxy.
Just like today, the first wave of post-war new towns was proposed when austerity coincided with a severe housing shortage. Cost ceilings on the first new homes led to frustration among architects, who found their designs value-engineered by officials at the Ministry of Housing.
Writing in 1970, Frank Schaffer, former secretary of the Commission for the New Towns said: ‘The new town stock now includes many [houses] that are much below the standards that are generally accepted today, and the savings on capital cost have since been far outweighed by the heavier maintenance charges.’
In 2017, the amount of public money provided for public housing is even scarcer, and the private sector has a far bigger role in the delivery of new communities. However, recent rules make it easier for developers to scale back planning obligation contributions on economic grounds.
Relying on the UK’s large housebuilders to produce quality living environments could be unwise
‘The introduction of the viability rules has provided a big challenge to good place-making,’ according to Katie Lock, new towns and garden cities expert at the Town and Country Planning Association.
Relying on the UK’s large housebuilders to produce quality living environments could be unwise, says URBED director David Rudlin. ‘Most of the architectural innovation has happened in social housing because private housing works to such a low cost base,’ he says. ‘These firms are at an automatic advantage because they can buy bricks by the million, giving them huge cost savings. However, if you can break the stranglehold of the big five housebuilders and open up to small-scale builders, then you will get innovation.’
But the public sector can still influence design quality through the imposition of design codes covering a number of plots, argues Hank Dittmar, urbanism consultant and former boss of the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community. ‘Competing for quality is a good thing,’ he says. Citing the example of Seaside, Florida – where The Truman Show was filmed, he says: ‘Everyone who bought land there originally used their own architect working to a design code. You got incredible architectural diversity and they sold quicker because competition was increased.’
Unlike in the post-war era when new towns were delivered by development corporations, today the public sector is not a major landowner on the sites of many of the new wave of garden settlements. This means design outcomes still depend on the attitude of the private landowners.
Long-term investors, keen to maintain the value of their assets are more likely to prioritise good quality design and materials, Clarke says. ‘We are fortunate to be working with developer who wants to put things in the right places,’ he says. ‘But irrespective of that, the planning system needs to set strong requirements for any strategic site.’
From the late 1940s to the 1970s, the new town programme became a hotbed for innovation, attracting the brightest and best of UK architectural talent. Milton Keynes produced the UK’s first solar-heated home: Bradville Solar House by architect John Seed. But other breaks with tradition were less successful. In 1967, according to Schaffer, 42 per cent of homes built by local authorities and new town corporations were built using prefabrication. By 1970, however, the proportion had plunged to just 15 per cent following the Ronan Point disaster, where a prefabricated tower block partly collapsed, killing four.
‘The new towns were incredibly exciting places to work as an architect,’ Lock says, ‘but when you are building major new settlements you have to make sure you are innovating and not experimenting.’
The government, in its recent housing white paper, proposed bringing back the corporations to ‘increase opportunities for communities to benefit from ‘land value capture’. The idea is taken directly from garden cities and new towns, where the jump in value resulting from development on greenfield land paid for long-term maintenance.
‘Some of this money could be invested in design and good infrastructure,’ argues Gary Young, a partner at Farrells.
Ensuring these new corporations embed imposition of good design within their governance structures will be vital, according to Philip Singleton, consultant and former managing director of the Graven Hill Village Development Company. ‘You need a holistic brain at a strategic, guidance and worker-bee level,’ he says. ‘You might get a very good design-led person at the lowest level but if they haven’t got anyone orchestrating the tunes then they are going to be playing off key.’
There is very little you can provide in a village. People will have to go to larger places to shop. It is environmentally crazy
Others warn that the government’s current approach – only granting funding to garden settlements that are self-contained communities, rather than what it terms ‘dormitory suburbs’ – could lead to long-term problems. Michael Edwards, teaching fellow at the Bartlett School of Planning, who worked on the original Milton Keynes masterplan, says: ‘I think it is better to link garden settlements into existing ones because you can tap into that existing infrastructure.’
Whereas the new town programme was ambitious and centrally directed, realpolitik dictates the current government’s approach – concentrating on smaller-scale, locally supported developments. But, says Edwards, ‘there is very little you can provide in a village because it is so small. People will have to go to larger places to shop. This creates not just more journeys but longer ones. It is environmentally crazy.’
In practice, despite the government guidance, a large proportion of the proposed garden settlements are, in fact, conjoined to existing conurbations. It is also clear that the government, despite its support, is not putting all its eggs in one basket.
Speaking to the AJ, housing minister Gavin Barwell says: ‘I am a big fan of new settlements as a principle, but there is a balance here. If we try to do all the new housing we need in new settlements, there would be a danger of quite a slow build-out because often these things are quite slow to get going.’
Progress is driven by trial and error, and each site’s unique context partially dictates the design approach taken. As with the original new towns and garden cities, this is likely to vary between different settlements. It is clear the masterplanners and architects of today are influenced as much by lessons of urban projects built in the past two decades as the previous waves of large-scale development. It remains to be seen whether today’s pragmatic, managerial, even cynical, society is able to improve on preceding schemes, like Bracknell, born of post-war idealism.
Proposed garden towns
- Aylesbury 15,000 homes. No masterplanner appointed
- Bicester 3,000-home urban extension. Masterplan by Farrells
- Basingstoke 5,500 homes west of Basingstoke over the next 30 years
- Didcot 15,000 homes. Urban extension plus town‑centre improvements. Masterplan by Grimshaw
- Ebbsfleet 15,000 homes. Masterplan by AECOM
- North Essex 40,000 homes on three sites; half new settlements. No masterplanner appointed
- North Northamptonshire 25,350 homes in six urban extensions. Masterplanners include Barton Willmore and LDA Design
- Otterpool Park, Shepway 12,000 homes. Masterplan by Farrells
- Taunton 8,000 homes in three urban extensions plus town centre improvements. Thrive Architects to support the masterplanning on Monkton Heathfield; Barton Willmore overseeing South West Taunton
- Harlow & Gilston 10,000 homes on seven sites, mostly urban extensions. Masterplan by Vectos/ Dr Peter Smith Architects & Planners
Buckland welborne watercolour cropped
Proposed garden villages
On 1 January 2017, the government announced the locations of 14 garden villages, which it says could deliver more than 48,000 homes. The AJ has studied individual proposals and has estimated there are 44,950 homes in the pipeline
- Long Marston in Stratford-upon-Avon 3,500 homes. Masterplan by planning consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners
- Oxfordshire Cotswold in West Oxfordshire 2,200 homes. No masterplanner appointed
- Deenthorpe in east Northamptonshire 1,500 homes. No masterplanner appointed
- Culm in mid Devon 5,000 homes. No masterplanner appointed
- Welborne near Fareham in Hampshire 5,500 homes. ADAM Architecture
- West Carclaze in Cornwall 1,500 homes. Masterplanning by Savills
- Dunton Hills near Brentwood, Essex 2,500 homes – Broadway Malyan
- Spitalgate Heath in South Kesteven, Lincolnshire – 3,700 new homes – masterplanned by design and environmental consultancy FPCR
- Halsnead in Knowsley, Merseyside 1,600 homes. Masterplan by planning consultancy Turley and Mott MacDonald
- Longcross in Runnymede and Surrey Heath 1,300 homes. Masterplan by Broadway Malyan
- Bailrigg in Lancaster 3,000 homes. No masterplanner appointed
- Infinity Garden Village in South Derbyshire and Derby City area 2,000 homes – no masterplanner appointed
- St Cuthberts near Carlisle City, Cumbria 10,000 homes. No masterplanner appointed
- North Cheshire in Cheshire East 1,650 homes. No masterplanner appointed. Hemingway Design producing vision document