Localising new-build housing

Architect and writer Clive Aslet (left) writes about a development of 4,000 houses on 500 acres – houses, small apartment blocks, schools, surgeries, mixed income housing, shops, business premises and leisure facilities and green spaces – on the edge of Newquay. There is an emphasis on local labour, materials and procurement.

“How society chooses to house people is every bit as important as how it chooses to feed people,” says Tim Gray, estate surveyor and chief of operations “If you can get those two things right, you will be happier, healthier and better able to engage socially. the ambition is to build community and engender civic pride, to live so that you can meet your daily needs conveniently on foot, not to differentiate between homes of different tenures, and to be connected socially with the adjacent settlements — this should provide good foundations for deciding how the nation should build homes in the future. There really is an alternative.”

Aslet describes a number of features:

  • a core commitment to spend the money in Cornwall, using local labour and materials and a pattern book with typical Cornish vernacular details, e.g. roofs are made from Cornish slate from a nearby quarry
  • The plans include setting up a town farm in some listed buildings to provide food for residents of the development.
  • There will be mixed-use neighbourhoods, in which the car is subservient to the pedestrian.
  • There will be a community orchard, allotments and ‘edible gardens’.
  • Low-cost rented homes are scattered among the more expensive owner-occupied ones 30% of the housing is affordable.

The area has been given a new lease of life. The quarry provides jobs, and so do the builders responsible for the work — all firms are from the southwest, whose work not only requires local labour, but also helps to establish local supply chains. They form what Gray calls a “consortium” a method that ensures the architecture is practical and appropriate for the local market.

Newquay is poor and homes are particularly needed by young people. Judging from conversations with a number of people in their twenties and thirties and young families met in the area, they like the designs, the edible gardens (herbs and fruit bushes are planted next to houses), espaliered pear trees and bee bricks (bricks with holes laid into the eaves of houses to welcome threatened bee populations), they’re all part of the philosophy — as well as local style, local materials and local employment . . . local food.

This is symbolised by the community orchard. seven acres of land that has been turned into allotments. “Trespassers will be composted”, reads one of the signs. Orchard and allotments are visible signs of the local food web that is being encouraged. They’re also somewhere that people from the new housing can meet long-time Newquay residents.

As Tim Gray said, this should provide a good foundation for deciding how the nation should build homes in the future. There really is an alternative: Aslet sees it as the beginning of a movement that made Britain better to live in.





Research findings: allotments have good food yields without sacrificing soil quality

Fruit growing on Hall Green allotment
Fruit growing on Hall Green allotment

There are around 330,000 allotment plots in the UK, covering more than 8000 hectares and demand is growing, with more than 90,000 people currently on allotment waiting lists in the UK. 

Findings of a study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology

  • Soils under Britain’s allotments are significantly healthier than intensively farmed soils.
  • By growing on a small-scale in urban areas, it is possible to produce food sustainably without damaging the soil.

Science Daily reports that ecologist Dr Jill Edmondson from the University of Sheffield took soil samples from 27 plots on 15 allotment sites, local parks, gardens across the city of Leicester and surrounding agricultural land. She measured a range of soil properties, including soil organic carbon levels, total nitrogen, and the ratio between carbon and nitrogen (all directly related to the amount and quality of organic matter in the soil) as well as soil bulk density, an indicator of soil compaction.

Intensive farming often results in significant declines in soil organic carbon stocks, as well as reducing the ability of soils to store water and nutrients, and damaging soil structure, on which food production — and other services such as carbon storage, flood mitigation and locking up pollutants — depends.

Compared with local arable fields, the allotment soil was significantly healthier: allotment soil had 32% more organic carbon, 36% higher carbon to nitrogen ratios, 25% higher nitrogen, and was significantly less compacted. Dr Edmondson says:

University of Reading study
University of Reading study

“We found remarkable differences in soil quality between allotments and arable fields. Our study shows how effectively own-growers manage soils, and it demonstrates how much modern agricultural practices damage soils.

“Allotment holders are able to produce good food yields without sacrificing soil quality because they use sustainable management techniques. 95% of allotment holders compost their allotment waste, so they recycle nutrients and carbon back to their soil more effectively.

“An estimated 800 million city dwellers across the world participate in urban food production, which makes a vital contribution to food security. Our results suggest that in order to protect our soils, planning and policy making should promote urban own-growing rather than further intensification of conventional agriculture as a more sustainable way of meeting increasing food demand.

Vegetables growing on Hall Green allotment
Vegetables growing on Hall Green allotment

“Using urban land, including domestic gardens, allotments and community gardens for own-growing is an important and often overlooked way of increasing productivity whilst also reconnecting urban dwellers with food production.

“As well as improving food security, studies show that own-growing has direct physical and mental health benefits, and can provide access to sustainably produced fruit and vegetable crops without the associated food miles.”

As a result of the findings, the authors say that planners and policy makers should increase the number of allotments available.

Jill L. Edmondson, Zoe G. Davies, Kevin J. Gaston, Jonathan R. Leake. Urban cultivation in allotments maintains soil qualities adversely affected by conventional agriculture. Journal of Applied Ecology, 2014; DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.12254 – gives link to pdf.


The University of Reading studies of soil erosion on farmland: see picture above left and http://www.ecifm.rdg.ac.uk/erosion.htm

A proposal for the Lozells & East Handsworth Community Development Trust Steering Group

Simon Baddeley, of the Handsworth Allotments Information Group (HAIG), writes:

Our Community Development Trust will include, or be neighbours with, a significant amount of green space in the form of gardens, parks, playing fields and, of course, allotments, with Uplands, just outside the ward being the largest allotment site in northern Europe and arguably one of the most successful when it comes to growing food. I myself have a plot on the new Victoria Jubilee Allotments next to Handsworth Park. I mention allotments and other green spaces because I would want to ensure that the city council’s low key, but quite intensive, long-term plans (matching those in others cities in the UK, especially London) for producing more food locally are included in future agendas of the new CDT.

The need for local food production as opposed to supermarket products arriving here from centralised packaging and distribution centres involving hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of road haulage is obvious enough in an age of increasing energy costs. It helps that in this area we have many food retailers who are sourcing their food more locally and selling, not in shopping malls but in outlets on our high streets – Villa, Lozells and Soho Roads.

There is also the matter of health as this arises from the quality of locally sourced fresh food – not only vegetables. We even have that rare thing these days – a local abattoir in Hamstead Road. There are many trends from government in Brussels downwards, working against the maintenance of local sustainable food production. Our CDT can play a role in educating the community about their role in growing, retailing and consuming local food, as well as influencing those agencies and individuals at national and regional level who already support or, if better informed, will support polices for local food both in the home and via the procurement policies of our schools and other institutions.

The Faith and Food Festival on Saturday 19 May this year is an important conference in which many of us are already involved. I believe the worm is turning in the matter of localism and food.

At present our green spaces, obviously our parks (unlike in time of war), but also our gardens (in many cases being turned into parking spaces), but even our many allotments are inadequate to present a serious challenge to the food production and distribution capacity of the big four retail outlets that are increasingly monopolising our food supplies – ‘big box’ food selling, even now sucking business from the existing food retailers for which our area is well known and where our diverse population of consumers, still accustomed to buying from local shops, is feeling the produce as they buy!

A British farmer – Julian Rose – remarks: “the European Union doesn’t like small scale self sufficient units that look after local people with good quality fresh food. No, it likes large scale monocultural farms employing as few people as possible and turning out thousands of tons of bland, lifeless foods to be sold in some vast bland and lifeless shop at the other end of the country. The EU wants farmers to be business men and make decent profits so they can be taxed and provide a decent revenue to the government.”

At the moment my emphasis may seem counter-intuitive, given other imperatives – housing, education, transport – but we all share a keen interest in our local ‘environment’ and most of us recognise the national and international implications of what is now known about the reality of human influenced climate change. The way our food is produced and consumed is intimately connected to that challenge, described by successive political leaders as a more significant threat than terrorism.

I very much hope that the East Handsworth and Lozells CDT, when established, will give, in its early policies, serious attention to the area’s agricultural potential, and give corresponding attention to its green spaces – resisting the ever present inclination to surrender them, via the temptation of planning gain deals, to further building, on the mistaken assumption that losing growing space to bricks and concrete enhances the local economy, rather than putting profits into the pockets of people and institutions habituated to sucking money out of local economies.