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Independently minded – Warminster Road, the fight is on

 

It was with a heavy heart that I went to the exhibition by the consortium developing the MoD Warminster Road site. If ever there was an opportunity for a development which could be a wonderful example of eco-housing, with green roofs to mitigate the impact on the landscape, this was surely it. After all, the council has signed up to the requirements of a World Heritage Site, one of which is to protect its setting. In one of their documents outlining requirements for developers, the council even made it clear that this was what they wanted. They stated: Additional requirements [are] set out in a ‘Development Principles’ document to capture other issues such as use of green roofs, prioritising passive solar design.

Kirsten-Elliott ls

They also made it clear that although the field is part of the site, it is to be kept – even made a bit larger. The guidelines say that developers must: Conserve and enhance the open meadow to north and east of the site to safeguard positive views through this area and back towards it from Georgian buildings and recreational routes, and remove the two existing buildings on the southern and the most elevated south-eastern corner of the site and restore to open space.

It was also made clear that the site was not to be over-developed.  The requirement is for 140 new homes in a range of types and sizes, including 35% affordable housing. There is to be a maximum of two storey dwellings, with taller buildings concentrated in a setback location on the lower slopes of the site.

warminster road3

Meanwhile, a challenge was identified to provide balanced access to protected wildlife habitats. A lengthy study of the site was carried out by Nicholas Pearson Associates (landscape architects, environmental planners and ecologists) and one of their concerns was about trees. They stated that consideration should be given to removing and replacing the detracting existing conifer belt in the south-east corner of the site with deciduous tree species.

There is also archaeology on the site.  There are mysterious ridges – they may be part of a Roman Road which crossed the site, or may be related to the hill fort on Bathampton Down.

All in all, this site has been identified as having a very important visual impact on Bath.  This was noted in the late 1950s, when CH Beazer built Minster Way. He was told to go over to Camden and make drawings, showing the impact the development would have on the area.

All of this seems to have passed today’s developers by –as I feared it would.  At the last public exhibition they held, one of the foreign developers was heard to say: ‘This is ridiculous, having just 140 houses here – if we build on the whole site, we can get closer to 400.’ Subsequent actions have also been of concern.  Without any planning applications, large test holes have been driven in the field, straight through any possible archaeology.  The challenge about wildlife has been met by infilling the badger-sett.  Buildings have been demolished without any consent. When this was reported to the enforcement dept, the answer was that this only applied to brick buildings.  In fact, one such has been demolished. However, my information from a planning expert is that all demolition in a conservation area requires conservation area consent. Why was nothing done?

I knew, too, that the architect appointed was Robert Adam. Not the Adelphi Robert Adam, but the chap who has built at Poundbury, and who is currently enraging Hampstead and Highgate with what one architect describes as his ‘Stalinist Baroque’.  The developers were very cagey about this appointment, and seemed quite distressed that I knew who the architect was – if they think they can keep secrets in Bath they have a lot to learn. However, this suggested to me that what we were likely to be offered was fake Georgian of the twee-est kind – and so it proved. This despite what Icomos-UK, when reporting back to UNESCO over Southgate in 2008, wrote about fake Georgian: ‘But it is not a solution – as realized in this example[Southgate] – to copy or create more or less historic façades with several historic details which have never existed. It seems necessary to state that “pastiche architecture” does not constitute an appropriate mean of structural intervention.’

That, however, is what we are being offered. The design – a masterpiece of muddled thinking and ignorance – shows houses which are vaguely 1840s in shape, with 1890s bays and 1760s doorways. What the developers want to put on the site is not 140 houses, but 207, including a three storey block of flats in the field – yes, the field they’re not supposed to be building on.  They’re only not building on parts of it because it’s too steep – I was told that. But where they think the field is not too steep – they actually said flat, though I would not have called a slope of about 1 in 7 flat – then they intend to build.  The Leylandii did come down – they did get planning permission for that – but the dead trees were left there, providing excellent cover for rats and possibly the badgers they had summarily evicted from their home. But they’re not going to plant trees, as suggested by the report – they’re going to put houses there.

Architect's impression of the proposed new houses.

Architect’s impression of the proposed new houses.

I pointed out they were not to build on the field. ‘Who says we can’t?’ they replied. I mentioned Unesco. ‘What’s Unesco?’ No surprise then, that they hadn’t heard of Icomos-UK, the committee that reports to Unesco. When trying to impress upon me that they had engaged a highly respected architect, I asked if they had read Building Design.  They hadn’t heard of Building Design – just one of the leading magazines in planning architecture. Even Gavin Stamp, by no means a modernist, has described Adam’s designs as ‘clunkingly gauche and slightly vulgar’.  And he’s quite polite compared with other comments I have read about this ‘highly respected’ architect. I checked out Poundbury and Aldershot, where a similar development is going ahead and quickly discovered that these designs are straight out of his ‘Georgian villas for the plebs’ drawer.

When another lady and I mentioned eco-housing and green roofs – the same green roofs as suggested by the council – the young architect’s nose visibly turned up. ‘Green roofs,’ he sneered.  ‘I suppose you want timber and stuff – like they did in the 1950s – and who would want to live in a 50s house now?’ he asked.  ‘I live in a 1950s house,’ I replied. ‘So do I,’ said the other lady irately.  I have never seen anyone look so foolish in my whole life.  What is frustrating is that we have a city full of architects, many of whom specialise in the sort of architecture that would be ideal for this site – I told them that but they made it clear they do not intend to change architects, and they intend to put these plans in and they expect to get them passed.

How the developer believes the new homes will look from the Warminster Road

How the developer believes the new homes will look from the Warminster Road

Their stumbling block may be the affordable housing.  They have pound signs flashing up in front of their eyes and see Warminster Road as a high value site.  The last thing they want is affordable housing but they’ve got to have it. Their first idea was to hide it away behind a hedge.  I imagine they were told that was a non-starter so they went for a block of one-bedroom flats – probably where the deciduous trees should have been planted – right by what will be the noisiest part of the development.  They’ve been told that won’t do either. But this does suggest that some planning officers have no trouble with other parts of the development, which clearly contravene the guidelines laid down for the area.

Minster Way may not be great architecture, but Beazer observed the setting of the site. Yes, he used a design that he had used elsewhere – but only in Bath.  It was of its time – it has no pretensions to twee-ness. The houses are clean, uncluttered and yet, in their own way, more traditional than the ghastly faux traditionalism of Adam’s vision.

What was strange was that it was the older members of the public who are demanding something better. As the lady from Christopher Close said; ‘This is a wonderful opportunity for something innovative and different.’  Unless the planning officers stiffen their sinews, we’re not going to get it.  If Adam’s ventures elsewhere are anything to go by, it appears to me that, as far as the feelings of the local inhabitants go, he has all the sensitivity of a rampaging rhinoceros. And in this he will be supported by developers who seem to be utterly ruthless. They’ve certainly treated the council’s ideas with utter contempt. The fight is on.

Kirsten Elliott

 

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