New town dreams. If I could wave a magic wand…, Steven Tolson

IF I could wave a magic wand, I would invest in a brand-new conurbation between Edinburgh and Glasgow called ‘Glasburgh’ (I admit, I’ve borrowed the name and idea from others, including the American urban studies theorist, Richard Florida).

I use the word, ‘invest’, rather than ‘develop’, because, as I see it, investing in something is for the long-term, straddling potentially several political cycles, while ‘developing’ sounds much more fleeting.

There is lots of good stuff already going on in the stretch of land between Scotland’s two major cities – including re-foresting – and the locational benefit is obvious given the established transport links that could be connected into.

There was a time when ‘New Towns’ in Scotland – such as Livingston and East Kilbride – attracted something of a sniffy attitude. I don’t think that exists any more, as they have developed their own patina and clear sense of community.

And although it is easy for me to get misty-eyed at how these ‘New Towns’ were founded, there is much from the practices back then which we could do with remembering.

I like the idea of these places having been the subject of very serious thought, no matter how flawed or doctrinaire it might now appear.

I like too the idea of planners actually planning. Post-Second World War, planners were a ‘doing’ arm of the state, but, over the decades, the role of planning has morphed into being much more regulatory.

I also warm to the idea of being able to pick up the phone to a planner and being invited in for a cup of tea and a chat, in the hope that two brains are going to prove better than one.

And I very much warm to the idea of towns being built to a pretty detailed design code. It worked for Moray Place in Edinburgh’s New Town and look how that has become a cherished part of our built heritage? Was it not the late Sam Galbraith MSP who asked, 20 years ago, what might be the conservation areas of the future?

That’s an aspect of the proposed changes to planning in England that one doesn’t hear too much about: if a planning application adheres to a robust design code, it can be pretty much assured of receiving the go-ahead. Your traditional housing developer will welcome that certainty against the almost in-built adversity and almost randomness of the current system.

But it is absolutely vital that we have a comprehensive, inclusive and sensible discussion as to what should be contained within any design code. It’s hard work but we’ve already gathered a lot of best practice and it’s not rocket science.

In Scotland, one parallel is the local development plan, which is something now produced every ten years – it was, until recently, five – which maps out the broad ambitions for a local authority area, in terms of housing, industry, transport, etc. At one level, local development plans can be far-sighted strategic documents, but, at another, they can lack detail and be too abstract for most folk to get their head around.

At the point when people might get most agitated – say about something happening on their own doorstep – the ‘horse has invariably bolted’: the plan has been already set in stone. 

Any local development plan worth its salt should absolutely involve lots of genuine citizen participation, but I fear that is rarely the case. We have to ensure that consultation doesn’t simply end up as ’lip service’ (I’ve noted a recent change in language, recently: from community ‘consultation’ to community ‘engagement’, which I hope bodes well). 

I am with David Rudlin – of Manchester-based design and research consultancy, URBED – who has likened ‘poor consultation’ to your GP saying to you: “What would you like your treatment to be?”

I have been fortunate to have fairly recently co-authored a couple of papers: for the Scottish Land Commission and also the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE).

The paper for CaCHE was with Gareth James, a member of the CaCHE team. And we looked at five housing developments to pick up lessons as to how Scotland might deliver more high-quality, sustainable homes and places for everyone.

For the Scottish Land Commission, I worked with a fellow chartered surveyor, Archie Rintoul, on a paper about the delivery of public interest-led development in Scotland.

What I have concluded from these exercises is that we need more pilot projects, to evidence what is possible, and also just how amazing it would be to live in a new town, that not only delivered on the additional, affordable housing that everyone believes we all need, but also embodies all the current good thinking about how one should really consult, design and build. 

The challenge, therefore, is for a vision to inspire politicians of all hues. A 2020s version of The Beveridge Report, if you like, that results in central government investment (acting as ‘municipal entrepreneurs’, so it gets its money back) comparable to that of Germany in its Ruhr Valley, which is not dissimilar to Scotland’s Central Belt.

Where, of course, Glasburgh would be sited.

Steven Tolson is a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and is a past chair of the Royal institution of Chartered Surveyors in Scotland. His recent work includes community regeneration action planning, housing for older people, and a comprehensive study on co-housing. Steven is an author and writer of guides and reports on a range of built environment subjects.

Pictured: Vauban, Freiburg, Germany, Picture credit: the author

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