As we approach the start of a new decade this is a perfect time to reflect on the state of play at Langley. Eco Sutton has been developing community responses to the Langley SUE to be sited on recently de-designated green belt on the edge of Sutton Coldfield, and is working closely with the Walmley Residents Consultative Group (WRCG), Birmingham City Council, local MP, the recently constituted Town Council, and other active stakeholders.
We submitted a detailed response to the Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) last October 2018. A positively received idea was to consider establishing a Community Development Trust (CDT) to oversee community aspects of this very large (up to 6000 houses – although this figure appears to be reducing) and impactful development, and the CDT idea was later added to the approved SPD.
We also researched suitable Community Housing Exemplars, and three Case Studies have LINKS to this article. The Group is lobbying Birmingham hard on community aspects as this is an issue of common interest, and in parallel is liaising with the innovative and successful Witton Lodge Community Association based locally in Perry Common. As the Town Planning Authority Birmingham has set a high policy bar for design and sustainability; Eco Sutton’s role with others is to ensure (with evidence) this standard is achieved.
And Sutton DOES have a rich and under-appreciated housing context rooted in the West Midlands Arts and Crafts tradition. Early in 2019 Eco Sutton examined the potential for a Garden Suburb approach, drawing on the Bournville Village Trust and Hampstead Garden Suburb (and other) traditions. A combination of creatively reimagining garden suburb design, low carbon solutions within an ecological landscape, with a multi-generational community ethos, offered great potential for a Langley vision, one that the local community would comprehend.
The Royal Town has a strong tradition in housing design easily capable of reinterpretation.
However, from informal contact made with the Consortium through its consultation and ad-hoc follow-up meetings, significant challenges remain: landscape context, public realm, low-carbon innovation, and design ALL appear (at least from this stakeholder perspective) to need improvement. Langley appears to be a proposal based on MINIMUM required standards, with basic conformity to Building Regulations, Town Planning, Highway and Environmental requirements. In the context of the increasingly high profile of the Global Climate Emergency Langley appears to be a meagre response by any stretch of the imagination!
Volume house builders deliver new houses efficiently and to profit. Generally however these are to Minimum Required NOT The Highest Standards of Sustainable Design.
In terms of process our assumption is that the Planning Authority and its Agents have been engaging with the Development Consortium’s design team, but these discussions are occurring behind closed doors. There has been little attempt at engagement despite the policy commitment to so do. Other than through ad-hoc meetings there has NOT been a sense ‘that local people have played a meaningful role in shaping the development.’ In fact, the two structured consultations (by Birmingham, and by the Consortium) reflect two divergent development approaches.
These architectural examples in the SPD are fantastic “Grand Designs” but do they suit the context, and would local people warm to them?
Birmingham’s SPD was illustrated with some of the brightest metropolitan housing architects, though with less reference to the prevailing suburban context in the Royal Town. Conversely the Consortium’s vision for Langley is of a typical market-led proposal with the site parcelled out to house builders. There is a massive gulf between these two visions, with the local community sitting somewhere awkwardly in the middle.
Sure, there is an ambitious list of supporting provision: schools, sports fields local centre etc; but given this mix it appears very easy indeed for quality and locally driven issues to be eased out of the frame. Meanwhile the movement strategy will rely heavily on the new township’s vehicles disgorging onto an already congested highway network. The conveniently sited Sutton Park Railway Line – in Transport Planning terms surely manna from heaven – is at best an aspiration. Why; when this a viable commuting option linked to Park & Ride should be a MANDATED requirement for a sustainable development?
Consequently, Langley has all the makings sadly of a standard dormitory suburb, dislocated from and disadvantaging its traditional town centre, with an emphasis on car use and ownership. If this is indeed the case then in no conceivable meaning of the term is Langley “sustainable.”
And yet could there be potential for a positive outcome? Relationships between the parties are good. The Consortium includes the Sutton based Gilmour family, with a housing development track record, and concerns over legacy. WRCG is well-led and coordinated and could easily provide the nucleus of a CDT. Stakeholders such as Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) obo the Combined Authority / WM Mayor appear responsive, flexible and committed. And the Town Council has recently commissioned a Masterplan with east-west considerations given to Langley / Peddimore. Meanwhile Birmingham has a strong record in delivering exemplary development and initiatives: Eastside, Paradise and Centenary Square being prime examples. The West Midlands is seriously getting its act together wrt transport and movement infrastructure, Birmingham is a City going places.
A green Langley has the potential to advance this progress. Perhaps the development control process will pull a miraculous new-year Langley rabbit out of the hat! And a reduction in housing numbers and density will lean towards a greener Garden-Suburb solution. Intimations of delay and reconsideration of overall numbers of dwellings would benefit a more modest, community-focused scheme; perhaps using local building companies and supply chains, this in itself helping create a more sustainable local economy. Let’s hope there’s a WIN-WIN-WIN not a depressing fudge and retreat!
Otherwise it’s a long haul for the community that has to live with the consequences to vigorously challenge and seek improvements to an unsatisfactory proposal.
- Marmalade Lane Co-Housing http://www.ecosutton.co.uk/co-housing-a-template-for-sustainable-housing-for-langley
- Derwenthorpe Housing York http://www.ecosutton.co.uk/derwenthorpe-case-study
- Goldsmith Street Housing Norwich http://www.ecosutton.co.uk/housing-exemplars-relevant-to-langley-sue-energy-efficiency-at-goldsmith-street-norwich