I’ve just heard a tale from the Devon town of Totnes. Totnes is a rather unique place, full of independent retailers, quirky, one-off shops and a very single minded and left-field populous who have got to a point where they’re so protective of the town and its character that they’ve introduced their own currency. Other places have followed suit, but Totnes was first.
The tale involves the coffee chain Costa, who have just gained permission for a shop in town, despite many hundreds of letters of objection against this happening. Many of the objections have cited the Coalition Government’s apparent desire to have planning matters more closely controlled by the community affected as a reason to refuse it – they didn’t want Costa to infiltrate their rather special place, and on that basis they argue that it should be refused. The problem with this is that the person or organisation who runs the coffee house is not a planning consideration; the planning concerns revolve around the suitability of the proposal in the place it is proposed. As it was in the town centre, and utilising a vacant shop unit, the planners had little choice but to approve it. This appears to be a big problem with the Coalition’s ambitions to put power with the people.
A similar situation has arisen here, in South Tottenham, where a very concerted effort on the part of a local community at Wards Corner has sought to protect an Edwardian building from being demolished – along with a locally run group of shops containing local independent traders. The might of Grainger PLC has finally won out, with a redevelopment of the corner now having the green light. The historic building will be demolished, the traders there at the moment will be relocated, and some nationally recognised cafes and traders will move in.
I suspect that there may be environmental and economic benefits in doing this, and that there will be some winners. However, what I have found in my work around London is that new development tends to strip away the beating hearts of places. Bland, generic architecture, the same few national traders selling the same stuff, and the same old options for food drink and leisure are making places uniform and stomping all over our heritage, our identity and what makes us different from place to place, community to community.
It would seem that the planning system should be there to protect difference and to celebrate it; to make local business and local traders prosper; to protect heritage and character where it exists, and most of all, to respond to the knowledge and experience of local people when they give their thoughts about how places should be developed.
It would seem, on the basis of these two cases, that we’re not quite there yet.