Why isn’t MK Council backing its own design guide?
By Chris Littlecott, Oxley Woods resident
The multi-award-winning Oxley Woods estate is frequently held up as an example of how Milton Keynes is home to innovations in architecture, construction methods, energy efficiency and urban design. Its distinctive design is so well recognised nationally that it has been featured on the whole spectrum of BBC, from Radio 4 to Flog it! You can even buy kitchenware that features our houses. We have a diverse and friendly community, with Big Lunches in the park, an online forum and regular neighbourhood newsletters.
Just this summer, a version of an Oxley Woods house had pride of place in the Courtyard of the Royal Academy in London as part of the Richard Rogers exhibition. The Evening Standard featured Oxley Woods, while Architects Journal revisited the estate five years on from its many awards. We frequently receive visitors from other councils, international delegations, architects, project developers and financiers.
Good news, bad news
The good news for MK and Oxley Woods is that last month the government announced that a neighbouring vacant site would be made available for a Custom Build scheme of around 14 houses as part of a national effort to support self builders and specialist developers. Residents of Oxley Woods have warmly welcomed this move, as we’ve been working with Homes and Communities Agency to facilitate the development of this and neighbouring sites. We have even drafted an outline context appraisal for use by potential developers.
With MK facing stiff competition from the likes of Bristol, Brighton and Peterborough as a location for innovative architecture and low-carbon living, you’d think that the council would be seeking to protect and extend the Oxley Woods approach. Worryingly the opposite seems true.
The bad news is that tonight MKC Development Control Committee will consider an application from Taylor Wimpey for a scheme to complete the last two vacant areas of the original Oxley Woods estate. The housing crash meant that Taylor Wimpey halted the award-winning scheme with 23 properties yet to be built, and despite offers of assistance from residents is determined to complete the estate with traditional construction methods. They already tried once in 2011-12, but that application was unanimously refused. Now they are back for a second try.
Ignoring the guidance
Following the refusal of the previous scheme, officers from MKC and the landowner (Homes & Communities Agency) made clear that they expected a full redesign, not just minor modifications. They also wanted Taylor Wimpey to undertake a full context appraisal as required under the New Residential Development Design Guide which was adopted in April 2012. They also proposed that Taylor Wimpey should draft a development brief and get input from residents prior to developing fresh proposals; something that we were keen to support. Thanks to Freedom of Information, the evidence of these requests can be seen on the OxleyWoodsLiving blog.
Sadly, but predictably, Taylor Wimpey decided against this, and proceeded with a ‘consultation’ exhibition against officers’ recommendations. They then submitted a planning application which immediately drew a response that it would be recommended for refusal on design grounds. This has been followed by further design changes that seek to tick off points raised by officials, but which result in an incoherent approach to the scheme.
The current proposals still fail to relate to the context of both the award-winning Oxley Woods estate and the approach taken in the rest of the Oxley Park grid square overall. We’ve recently submitted further evidence on the inadequate approach proposed for the important ‘High Street’ frontage.
Reasons for refusal
Tonight the planning committee will consider the application, and have been advised to refuse permission based on a failure of the applicant to provide sufficient financial contributions.
But the committee report is silent on the failure to follow MK planning guidance and weak on the continuing design reasons for refusal.
This time last year, planning officers were requesting that Taylor Wimpey undertake a context appraisal and refrain from holding a public exhibition. Yet paragraph A2.4 of the report to tonight’s Development Control Committee notes that “The applicant has submitted a Design and Access Statement with their application and this is considered to have adequately satisfied the recommended elements of a context appraisal”.
We disagree with this assessment, in that the Design & Access Statement:
- fails to reference the MKC New Residential Development Design Guide;
- includes no demonstrable new contextual information beyond the inclusion of reasons for refusal for the previous scheme; and
- repeats inaccuracies that were previously identified and drawn to the applicant’s attention.
The lack of an adequate context appraisal is also evidenced by the need for significant revisions to the design originally submitted under this application, and the continued incoherence between different elements of the proposals. The applicant and officers also continue to get the name of the site wrong, showing a basic lack of engagement with the planning context.
Given that the MKC New Residential Development Design Guide was adopted as a Supplementary Planning Document subsequent to the refusal of the previous scheme we would have expected to see evidence that its approach had informed this current application. MKC officers had also very clearly stated the need for the applicant to undertake a context appraisal and development brief in support of a full re-design rather than minor modifications. This is clearly absent. So why is MKC failing to back its own policies?
Negative impact on MK, its planning policies and design standards.
Were this application to be approved on appeal, or a deal reached on financial contributions, a precedent would be set which severely reduces the ability of MKC to require developers to follow formal planning guidance, and in particular the approach required under the New Residential Development Design Guide. Recently, 43 households from Oxley Woods submitted a letter expressing our concerns that this would have negative implications for not just the remainder of Oxley Woods but both the potential development of the neighbouring sites and the broader planning policy context for Milton Keynes as a whole. Yet on reading the committee papers we fear that this letter is buried in the online annexes, rather than being placed in front of Councillors for consideration.
The Oxley Woods estate is the poster child for recent MK estates, to the extent that it is featured on the front cover of the MKC New Residential Development Design Guide. It begs the question:
If MKC planning guidance will not be followed to ensure the appropriate completion of a site featured on the front cover of its own policy documentation, where will it be required?
UPDATE (from Xplain): Good news. MK Councillors voted unanimously to reject the scheme – not only due to inadequate Section 106 funding but also, most importantly, on grounds of poor design. Let’s hope Taylor Wimpey finally understand that people really do care about the quality of design and want more sustainable homes.