12 Jun 2011
The Future is Northampton
Distribution Warehouses: from here to the death of the high street
Northampton is an interesting but unassuming Midlands town which has had a great deal of planned development thrust upon it. It is at the epicentre of what was the Sustainable Communities Plan announced by Prescott in 2003 only to be scrapped by Pickles in 2010. But despite the much publicised death of regional planning the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation lives on and the new Core Strategy still contains plans for big expansion – 7 ‘sustainable urban extensions’ as well as large scale inner urban development. 23,000 new homes are still planned in Northampton by 2026.
New Ways - a future from 1925
Northampton has always been compliant to central diktat, unlike stroppy Home Counties exurbia. In 1968 it was designated a New Town and the population has since increased by nearly 60% to 210,000. Then it was included in Prescott’s Milton Keynes/South Midlands Growth Zone. This was always fairly bonkers as the intention was to divert development from where it really wanted to be – the Thames Valley, Surrey or anywhere posh where the locals would thwart development – to somewhere 70 miles away up the M1 which didn’t matter so much. In fact it was an early form of Localism.
The past is a foreign country
Blessed with good parks and rolling landscape
Prescott, the Sustainable Communities Plan, regional planning, growth zones …. what a curious far away place the recent past is. No longer command and control, planners are now the Enemies of Enterprise. The future is about embracing communities (or is that big business). But Localism is really ritual theatre to reinforce the identity and belief systems of the privileged. It is not about practical things like delivering housing or jobs. This is the preserve of the Market god. However faith in the Market god is badly misplaced since his or her model of housing delivery is well and truly bust. Two thirds of people under 45 now think they will never own their home. (Must be true, it was in the Guardian.) Without first time buyers the mass housing market, which has underpinned most of our fantasies of well being in recent years, does not work. But this is a heresy not to be spoken – something so terrible that it strikes at the very being of Middle England.
Strangely planning is complicit in this. As a profession it has yet to understand the scale of the housing crisis triggered by casino banking but which is actually far more fundamental than that – the pyramid selling of housing that so many of us are complicit in. It offers no coherent alternative to the charade of Localism, partly because everyone really knows this is just window dressing – it is not meant to change anything. And the apparatus of planning is still all there; a vastly complex structure with its evidence basing-demand forecasting-sustainability appraising-environmental impact assessing-stakeholder involving-infrastructure levying-market appraising that seems to make little impact on the quality let alone the quantity of new housing in particular.
Northampton plays the game
Take me to the River Nene
So what does any of this mean for Northampton? Well despite the catastrophic failures of the housing market it’s still game on for growth planning, at least in theory. The planners to their credit are putting in place all the pieces of the Local Development Framework jigsaw. There is a Core Strategy which covers the town and sensibly the surrounding semi-rural areas as well. A Town Centre Action Plan has been produced and there are imaginative proposals for improving the ecology and accessibility of the River Nene. A ‘tariff’ for developer contributions covers everything from crèches to crematoria. The West Northamptonshire Development Corporation and the HCA are assembling land and remediating it for development – really quite amazing in Pickles world. So if new housing and jobs are not delivered in Northampton it won’t be for lack of plans.
Two things in the Core Strategy really strike you. The first is that the ‘sustainable urban extensions’ remain a blank canvas (of which more later). The second is the extent of the problems created by the New Town developments from the 70s onwards which now have to be overcome. These are a series of inward looking Radburn estates tagged on to new expressways, hugely car dependent and with little relation to the older Northampton. The new shopping centres, offices and factories are all out of town. The town centre is economically weak – overshadowed by nearby Milton Keynes.
City centre ambitions
Closed: ambitions for civic transport. Borough Transport offices.
The Core Strategy and the Action Plan include lots of sensible policies to strengthen the town centre – to try and make it a ‘city centre’. Bravely it includes a ban on any further superstores, which are already hyper dominant with just four big supermarkets taking 40% of the total retail spend. Enemies of Enterprise indeed! The strategy also includes lots of good intentions about improving sustainability with obligatory calls for ‘high quality public transport’. Poor public transport is an intractable problem for Northampton. Always off the main line its rail links were butchered by Beeching so although it has outer suburban services to Euston and the West Midlands, there is no connection to other Northants towns, or to Leicester, Nottingham, Peterborough or Bedford. No wonder its expressways are clogged. Worse are the bus services. Northampton Borough used to run its own buses and their jewel box like offices survive next to the First bus garage. Londoners enjoying the benefits of regulated (and heavily subsidised) London Transport cannot imagine what it is like to rely on the anarchy of competing bus companies and where there are virtually no buses after 7 in the evening. All the sustainable travel policies in the world will not overcome the madness of bus de-regulation.
Amenities and services are left wanting
Although the Core Strategy says all the right things, Northampton’s experience shows us how difficult it is to deliver against the pressure of government backed market forces and the crippling lack of resources and powers of local authorities. There is a strong sense that the horse has already bolted. The business parks and estates along the motorway have little at all to do with Northampton the real place but are part of the amorphous M1City which is a fairly inevitable result of their genesis as an extruded part of the London megalopolis.
The Belgium of England
Free market or real market?
When Ian Nairn stopped off in Northampton on his 1972 journey through England what he saw was the handsome County town rebuilt after the great fire of 1675 which was just then being knocked about a bit, and the Northampton of what had been the ubiquitous boot and shoe industry. It was a distinctive, distinct and quite separate place – certainly not part of the Home Counties. Nairn loved the open market which he thought was more like Belgium than anywhere in England (he thought this a compliment). Nairn rightly bemoaned the ignorant destruction of distinctive buildings around the market place, one of the finest in England, and the extreme banality of their replacements. Worse was to follow. What was the subtle skyline of the town seen from the South Bridge over the Nene is now completely dominated by the dismal 1972 Grosvenor Centre flanked by office slabs of a similar date and more recent cliffs of apartments near the Station. Even more disgraceful is the blank and unfathomable Crown and County laager beyond the Grosvenor Centre which has no relation to anything. It is shamed by the quality and confidence of the Police, Fire Station and Baths across the ring road built in 1938-41 and which Pevsner found ‘desperately uninspiring’. Well, all things are relative.
The creativity and street levels are a joy
Not all doom and gloom
Great and gaudy: Barratt’s
Whilst redevelopment in the 60s and 70s was undoubtedly a tragedy as in so many historic towns, in fact there is still much to admire about the centre of Northampton. Many of the streets radiating from the grand All Saints, rebuilt in1680 after the Great Fire, retain their character. The Town Centre Action Plan could provide the basis for a real renaissance provided the government actually supports Northampton’s apparent determination.
Remember the future? The Express Lift tower
Apart from the Market Place the ‘must see’ buildings of Northampton are somewhat eccentric. Firstly the Town Hall designed by Edward Goodwin in 1861- wonderfully over the top Gothic which caused a sensation in its time. In the 1990s it was extended in a modern interpretation of Gothic, and exceptionally well done. On Derngate is the house remodelled at the end of his career and far from home by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (now National Trust). His client the model train maker Bassett Lowke also commissioned Behrens to design a startlingly modern Expressionist house on Wellingborough Road in 1925. Other curiosities include the Carlsberg Brewery of 1971 suitably by a Danish architect and with a wonderfully jagged roof line. Even more unusual is the 127m high Express Lift Company testing tower, only built in 1982 and quickly redundant. Now listed it sits in a roundabout at the centre of a fairly bleak residential redevelopment.
Built to last: the lively streets of the boot and shoe industry
Northampton’s development as an industrial town was slow but in many ways successful. The boot and shoe industry was small scale, initially domestic workshops and later small factories closely related to terraced housing, a lot like Leicester. The grander factories like Barratt’s Foot Shape Boot Works on Barrack Road were Edwardian. The town reputedly had the best working class housing in England and the middle class suburbs around various fine parks remain very attractive.
The Sorrows of Young Womersley
The Alice Coleman critique ends here, at the precinct...
The planned expansion of the town has proved more problematical. One of the first post war developments was the King’s Heath estate, designed by the Borough Architect J.L Womersley in the early 50s – before his Sheffield apotheosis. Now very rundown it is nevertheless easy to see why this was initially highly regarded, a physical manifestation of the Welfare State ideals. Set around a generous oval green the terraces of maisonettes and houses are well laid out and show touches of detail and care in design which is so patently missing from so much recent social housing. On the entrance axis to the estate and next to the green is a broad shopping precinct which should be, and probably was, the social heart of the estate. Sadly most of the shops are now empty and the precinct looks like a wasteland. The evident problems of the estate have little to do with Alice Coleman’s critique – the layout is conventional and very legible. It seems to have a lot to do with lack of maintenance and lack of opportunities. King’s Heath is just part of the base of the English housing and class pyramid.
...and here, facing the park
Eastern District twinned with Stasi-land
Given the "current climate" can you stop taking pictures?
Womersley post Sheffield also advised on the New Town developments of Northampton. The Eastern District was the first to be built starting in the early 70s. The scale of the new district – it has a population of 45,000 - and the rapidity of its development was extraordinary. This was not an urban extension – it was a new town plonked down beside Northampton. It includes its own town centre, Weston Favell, which is certainly a period piece. The shopping centre is high up above car parking and servicing originally reached by dramatic concrete stairs. It has an unexpectedly grand barrel vaulted roof. The original has been extended by more conventional retail park tat but the most extraordinary extension is a flying Evangelical church across the highway. Commercially successful it actually has a threatening feel and is the only place on our travels where we have been stopped by the Police for taking photographs. (Actually we were also stopped in Upton on the same day. Clearly paranoia is a big theme of the new Northampton.)
We can learn from this
The Eastern District is a maze of Radburn estates and you are instantly lost. Thorplands designed by the Northampton Development Corporation was under construction when Pevsner was revised in 1972. Bridget Cherry concluded: ‘This looks very promising. The varied heights, angles and textures of the houses already begin to create the atmosphere of a village centre with an identity of its own.’ Nearly 40 years later these qualities of design and place-making can still be discerned. With its local facilities, play pitches, pine trees and broad vistas it comes close to the social democratic dream – as long as you don’t look too hard. If the houses had been built better and maintained better it might well be des res today, but actually it is shabby and run down. The manic separation of traffic from pedestrians creates a confused layout where parking always ends up dominant. Easy to criticise now – the question is are new housing layouts learning enough from this? From our chronological tour of Northampton housing developments I fear not.
Tales of the Riverbank
I will not re-use a Carlsberg marketing slogan
The River Nene running south of the town centre is a big asset to Northampton. Surprisingly broad, slow flowing, lined with willows and in places flanked by parkland it almost has the quality of The Backs. The industry along the banks has largely disappeared apart from the Carlsberg Brewery. So Northampton was well placed for the Urban Renaissance as translated from the original Rogers by volume house builders.
Spot the security camera
In Northampton riparian development inevitably involves retail parks but the Morrison store off Victoria Promenade actually deserves some credit. It is a bit more than a shed and its jolly turrets are something better than desperate. Even better you can reach the front door with its nice little garden centre outside without having to walk across a huge car park – it is on the pedestrian desire line from the town centre to a new pedestrian bridge (although cycling is discouraged with draconian fencing chicanes).
Both banks of the river are lined with similar blocks of 4 storey yellow and red brick apartments with hard block paving everywhere, all verdant with weeds. A processional pedestrian way flanked with really utilitarian looking flats leads to the heart of the development – which is of course the car parks. The Mary Ann looking ‘fronts’ facing the walkway are actually the backs ‘cos inevitably the entrances are via the car parks. And they are huge and horrid. It’s not the apartments which are the problem, although they are pretty bog standard; it is the layout and the dominance of parking and traffic engineering. West of South Bridge more similar flats are under construction and more still are planned nearby on the hugely significant site between the Nene and Delapre Park which desreves much better.
Prince Charles woz ere: Upton in Bloom
What is driving this high density, low quality stuff is the cost of assembling, decontaminating and servicing Brownfield land, the burdens of ‘planning gain’ and of course the Faustian pact with the car. It is difficult to be optimistic that this will change. Northampton waterside is most probably the future. However there has been a bold attempt to follow the real Urban Renaissance model – at Upton, 3 miles west along the Nene Valley. This is a Greenfield site brought forward by the predecessors of the HCA with help from CABE and even Prince Charles. As with much successful development historically, it is the landowner who has adopted design codes – not the planning authority.
A cover band of architectural styles and motifs
From the bizarre anomie of the Swan Valley business district next to the M1 where huge distribution sheds and huge car parks are set within acres of dog eye daisies and balancing ponds you approach Upton along Tithe Barn Way. (Was that intentional irony?) Across the shallow river valley you glimpse another surreal sight – substantial 4 storey perimeter blocks of houses in white stucco rising up next to the water meadows. You quickly realise that in Upton there is a cacophony of styles but all within a consistent structure of blocks which is coherent and legible - you will never get lost. The variety of styles from neo-Georgian to Ecobuild takes a bit of getting used to and there is something of that subversive Northampton eccentricity here. But actually the standards of design and detailing are very high compared to – well almost any other big new housing estate in England.
Beware of the cars
What doesn’t work quite so well (inevitably) is the parking. There is a very clear street structure and although some parking is allowed on the street, the paving designs are often over fussy to limit this. Most parking is in gated backland courts, which are a big drawback and add to the security paranoia that is something of a feature of the place. Few people are around – it feels a bit like a Stepford Wives set. The Junior School is a sinister affair with huge pitched roofs, blank walls and security fencing. There are no shops (hardly surprising given the huge retail and leisure complex on the other side of the expressway). Upton feels quite isolated by the expressway and is very car dependent, although there is now a bus route and for intrepid cyclists and walkers, the Nene Valley Way.
Victorian Values: the school fortress
The first phases of Upton are still being built and more are planned. It is certainly brave and ambitious and could mature into a successful community. Certainly due to the enlightened approach of the public sector land owners it is about as good as we can get without some much more fundamental changes in the way we plan, design and pay for buildings and community services.
A clear plan facing the park (similar to King's Heath)
So what will we learn from Northampton’s experience of large scale expansion over many decades? The Core Strategy sets out policies for each of the 7 ‘sustainable urban extensions’ it has identified – numbers of dwellings, amount of employment land, school places, size of local facilities, sports facilities, highway authority requirements, generic aspirations for transport and sustainability, flood management, archaeology, SINCs – it’s all there. The last requirement is ‘development proposals must be accompanied by a masterplan’.
The big issue is who commissions and controls the masterplans. At Upton it was the public authorities but Thatcher and Son’s marginalisation of planning has meant that this is very much the exception. Masterplans for Greenfield sites are invariably the creatures of developers and volume house builders. Design, place-making and sustainability are on the back foot from the start as every agency jostles at the developer contributions trough and the existing communities seeks to insulate themselves from the future community at all costs. Public authorities are usually left to try and bring forward expensive and difficult Brownfield sites. And public authorities are left to deal with problem estates which have been starved of investment and asset stripped. How can this be in the public interest? Ironically the biggest sustainable urban extension in Northampton is next to the King’s Heath estate. I wonder how this new development will relate to and improve the quality of life in the deprived estate? How sustainable, how urban and how much an extension of the town will it be; or will it be plugged into new roads turning its back on the estate and the town. I wonder.
So yes planning does need some fundamental changes. What is required is not the mumbo jumbo of Localism but much clearer leadership on the design of places and public spaces – masterplanning for want of a better term. I don’t think this is on the Pickles agenda. Nevertheless what we see in the development of Northampton pressages the future for many of our towns and cities - for good and ill.
Unfortunately the Victoria Inn was closed on our visit but it looked good from the outside.
Pevsner and Cherry: Buildings of England – Northants
J. Smith: Northants – A Shell Guide
English Heritage: Built to Last (Buildings of the Northants Boot and Shoe Industry)
Garry Mills, 'The Planners and the Planned', in Alan Moore: Dodgem Logic Magazine
CABE: Upton case study
West Northants Joint Core Strategy