There was a delightful symmetry to my visit to the South West which began in Exmoor National Park viewing an early 19th Century endeavour to create a high quality rural estate. Wealthy industrialist John Knight acquired the former Exmoor Royal Forest in around 1818 and set about creating a large farming estate, complete with grand house, estate buildings and romantic gardens. The project was never completed but left an extensive area of green pasture amidst the moorland, many farm buildings, an unfinished mansion and a hidden landscape of lost gardens and decaying cottages. At Simonsbath, the National Park Authority is well-advanced in a restoration project, bringing a pair of 1820’s “Scottish” cottages and a Victorian schoolroom back to life to form a community hall and visitor and interpretation centre, alongside a former garden, which is being rediscovered with volunteer effort, led by a local Trust.
Exmoor National Park faces many of the challenges I identified in my August blog about our National Parks but with unique aspects. As in other parks, the pressure for holiday lets and second homes is posing difficulties for local residents in competing for the limited housing stock of the Park. But at Exmoor, second homes are rapidly becoming first homes as people buying in from London and the South East choose to base themselves in the Park, commuting to work for two or three days a week and working from home for the majority of days.
Economic pressures, changing farming practices (in the light of checks for TB and increasing cases of relatively short-term farming tenancies) are all leading to reduced grazing of the moors, in turn threatening a marked change in the landscape that the National Park seeks to protect and preserve.
House price pressure
Different pressures face Dartmoor National Park with its comparative proximity to fast-growing Exeter and Plymouth and accessibility from the A30 and A38. House price pressure is more acute while visitor pressure threatens the unique ecology and landscape of the Park. At Chagford, the local community has taken a lead in addressing the issues. Well before the introduction of Neighbourhood Plans, locals recognised the acute need for affordable and elderly persons’ housing, for community space and for new parking to keep tourist traffic out of the village centre. Their solution was to identify a large site on the edge of the village which could deliver the much-needed homes and sustain the required facilities. The result is a scheme of 93 new homes (mostly open-market), which is very large-scale by National Park standards. The emerging development shows a remarkably high quality of design. Supported by the National Park Authority and following an Inquiry by Design process, the main builder, C G Fry & Son, is creating homes that sit superbly in the village context and in the landscape of the Park.
Elsewhere in the Park, the Christow Community Land Trust has brought forward a scheme of energy-efficient, Passivehaus homes, mainly for affordable rent. Both schemes serve to demonstrate what can be achieved by community power, backed by a forward-looking planning authority.
My first day concluded with a discussion amongst leading figures in public sector planning in the South West, including Karime Hassan, Chief Executive of Exeter City Council and Paul Barnard of Plymouth City Council. Discussion over dinner covered the recurring theme of resource pressures in local government but also the positive contribution that planning can make when given a leading role in councils. When councillors take on the role of defining what is needed, it’s the planners that can show how. Recent reorganisations in several councils in the region have worryingly failed to recognise the “planning bonus” that strong planners in leadership positions can deliver.
These thoughts resonated in my meeting the next morning with planners in the newly-formed Dorset Council. With such a wholesale reorganisation, there is a clear risk of the Council becoming overly inward-looking as it strives to build its services and relationships with towns, and parishes. A strong portfolio holder and an Executive Director for Place who are strong champions of planning suggest there is a huge potential for the new planning service to deliver something exceptional for its communities.
Being in Dorchester, I couldn’t resist a tour of Poundbury with a group of Dorset Young Planners. It is nearly twenty years since building commenced, with some five years of development still to come. The quality of design and delivery is undeniable and it is impressive how closely the reality has held to the principles and vision of Leon Krier’s original master plan. Many will envy the willingness of the transport engineers to engage in innovation at Poundbury while the real difference lies in the willingness of the landowner to take a long-term view rather than short-term return. If only such an approach was more widespread.
And finally I was taken once more to an endeavour to create a high quality rural estate, complete with grand house, estate buildings and romantic gardens. The difference here, at Bruton, is that it’s a well-advanced twenty-first century project and is being delivered with great attention to detail and a real quality of design and ambience. The Newt in Somerset is a tourism and visitor facility based in the Emily Estate, centred on Hapsden House, a Grade II* listed Georgian country house. In the house and its grounds, the owners have worked closely with South Somerset District Council and Historic England to create a hotel, restaurants, restored and expanded gardens, “cyder” house, garden museum and other attractions that really have to be seen.
If you’re looking for ideas for your next study tour – or holiday – why not try the South West? Like me, you’ll find extraordinary examples of design, restoration and delivery – and fine inspiration.