Bourne Civic Trust: Authorities must have courage to insist developers stick to local Lincolnshire style
In my last article in the February 19 issue I discussed the government’s planning guidance about the design of new housing and, in particular, the requirement for developers to reflect the local vernacular style.
The word vernacular is important if we are to understand why our towns and villages look the way they do.
A vernacular building is one built by a local builder in a local tradition and built of local materials - an ordinary, simple house with no pretensions to any national or formal style.
It’s conventionally said the vernacular finally died out in early Victorian times because the growth of the canal system and then railways allowed materials to be transported over much longer distances.
Materials such as Welsh slate became very widespread, so a Victorian house often looked the same whatever part of the country it was in.
Victorian architects and critics did their best to acknowledge local styles where they thought it right, trying to reflect features of existing buildings in the new ones so they to blend in with their setting.
It’s true to say this was not a real vernacular but a contrived one, but anyway, they tried. We have a similar problem today.
Even the government has finally recognised the poor quality of new housing design. Its Living with Beauty report emphasises the need for new housing to respect its setting by using materials and designs that reflect the local tradition.
Existing planning guidance already acknowledges this, and the Local Plan has guidelines requiring new buildings to take account of their setting.
Neighbourhood Plans like the one being developed for Bourne also have a big role to play by coming up with local design guides to flesh out the existing principles in more detail as they relate to the local area.
Despite all that, the volume house developers remain problematic.
As we’ve seen in Bourne, they mostly produce generic housing designs with architecturally illiterate ‘bolt-on’ features - a bit of ‘Georgian’ canopy here and a bit of ‘Victorian’ ridge tile there, often on the same house.
Most of these designs are simply incompatible with the planning guidance.
The Lincolnshire vernacular is quite plain, simple and dignified, with pantiles, horizontal casements and sloping dormers, with none of those bright bargeboards.
But despite all the guidance, local authorities, in their rush to get houses built, are failing to tackle this problem.
They tend to kid themselves it’s good enough to suggest minor cosmetic adjustments to the generic designs they’re presented with, when in reality the whole design philosophy of the volume builders needs to change.
The guidance is there and our local authorities must have the courage to enforce it.
Unless enforcement is more stringent, developers will just persist with these designs that could be anywhere in the country.
They won’t make real efforts to understand local character unless they’re told to go back to the drawing board.
There also seems to be a tendency to think there’s a conflict between vernacular design and sustainability, and that a house that respects the local vernacular is somehow out of date or not environmentally-friendly in some way.
This is a misunderstanding and there is no incompatibility between tradition and environmentalism.
Traditional builders always used sustainable materials, whereas modern houses have usually been of much more artificial materials requiring much more energy to manufacture, to say nothing of being more shoddily built.