British cities, towns and villages grew on the basis of trade, commerce, transport and security. Invariably this meant that they were located by coastal ports and river crossings.
Anybody could work that out, right?
Britain hasn’t had military conflict on its own soil for about 360 years so over the last few centuries and the main impetus for urban growth has been increased trade as the empire expanded and industrialisation leading to migration from countryside to towns and cities.
The Georgians, Victorians and Edwardians created stunning planned city districts. They used superb design and materials to create metropolitan and suburban terraced homes, public squares, mansion blocks and suburban homes (what become very much the British vernacular), albeit that appalling slums were also created before the welfare system kicked in.
The twentieth century witnessed the rise of modernism and brutalism, which by and large, has been a failed social experiment. Greedy developers and corrupt councils in the 1960s ensured that high rise developments failed in Britain. Besides Le Corbusier and Bauhaus don’t suit the British climate.
Green Belts around London and Oxford emerged. They were based on a false premise, that people would work, as well as live, outside those Green Belts. This didn’t happen. People simply spent more time travelling in and out of London.
Interestingly Covid is bringing about changes of work patterns and lifestyle, allowing people to work from home if they so wish. This makes rural living economically viable again and perhaps finally makes Green Belts appropriate because people don’t need to endure long daily commutes.
The creation of satellite new towns has been by and large a mistake, a political folly. British people don’t particularly want to live in sterile, new gated developments. This is not the USA. They are drawn to villages, towns and cities of character and history.
Milton Keynes, Harlow and Poundbury exemplify the way in which designers, developers and planners attempt to design communities. This doesn’t really work because communities grow organically and not to order. The spirit and essence of a community relies on a combination of elements: history perhaps, local culture, the fabric of an existing settlement. Creating a new town or suburb and dropping it onto the landscape is hardly likely to engender deep rooted camaraderie.
Similarly, volume house developments in isolated locations demonstrate the triumph of design and development over the lives of the occupants. Sterile boxes with postage stamp gardens surrounded by high fences, set in developments with minimal or no community facilities, force families to live in a dystopian environment. The homes are usually designed without any imagination, use cheap materials, are badly built, and are set away from existing settlements. They rely totally on the car, which in Britain, unlike the US, is inappropriate. This is because our historic settlements have narrow roads designed for horses, not SUVs.
The housebuilders have profited enormously from these schemes and from the practice of obtaining planning consent on greenfield sites.
Britain’s population has been growing at a rapid rate:
According to the ONS, It is projected that there will be an additional 7.5 million people aged 65 years and over in the UK in 50 years' time. This is due to increased immigration and longevity.
Now UK housebuilders are sitting on a million new planning-approved plots, most of which (if they are built) will be the usual box housing estates on sites such as disused airfields and farmers’ fields requiring total car reliance.
Surely there’s a better place to put them?
Indeed there is.
British towns are by rivers and sea and are typically subject to flood risk. There are three types of flood risk: surface (water cascading down a hill, for example); river; and coastal.
Take the Thames Valley.
The area has been booming partly because 70% of international companies setting up in the UK do so within one hour of Heathrow. There is considerable investment in infrastructure including Crossrail and M4 improvements. It’s an attractive area that includes Oxford and Reading, a boom town.
Most of the towns suffer from surface and river flood risk so local authorities have been allocating dormitory sites on higher ground between towns and villages. For example South Oxfordshire plans to build 13,500 homes on green and brown belt sites, including Chalgrove Airfield.
No doubt if these homes are built the residents will be driving their oversized cars into Oxford at the weekend and trying to find somewhere to park.
And yet Oxford, as with most towns in the Thames Valley, has an area within it representing around 30% of its overall size that is flood risk land. Building raised roads and flood-adaptive homes on this land is technically feasible and has been done successfully in Holland.
The north west quadrant of Oxford is ideal for this purpose. Living there would allow new residents to walk or cycle into the town centre or railway station. They could use existing amenities. It would leave the Green Belt in tact. And most important, would give the residents a great lifestyle, even if there were extreme floods.
If the new developments were substantial (ie more than 500 homes) there would have to be new community facilities, such as surgery or primary school. But this would be minimised because the developments would be more proportionate to the existing towns that they complement.
Redundant flood land could be transformed into waterside living with wetlands for wildflife and watersports. The developments would incorporate significant investment in flood water management for the specific site; this could benefit neighbouring areas where there are old houses at flood risk that do are not flood adaptive. This is because the water management could take those vulnerable old houses out of flood risk.
So what’s stopping this from happening?
The National Planning Policy Framework does not recognise flood-adaptive technology when assessing the suitability of a site.
This would be like ruling out the Channel Tunnel or Severn Bridge because boring machines and suspension bridge technology are not recognised.
So the sooner that the UK adopts the Dutch can-float building code and allows for appropriate technology in planning applications, the better we will all be.