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Chippenham's vision is at the vanguard

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With DCLG expected to announce shortly which local authorities have been selected to become Neighbourhood Planning Vanguards, it is important to recognise that there are already huge learning opportunities out there that could influence this initiative.

Our experience at Action for Market Towns suggests a lot can be achieved by local authorities willing to take an enabling role with local groups and private developers.

Take the Wiltshire town of Chippenhan - an attractive, historic town in the shadow of Bath, Bristol and Swindon and an hour by train from London. The town has a population of nearly 30,000 and also serves as a service centre for nearby smaller towns and villages. But it faces some major challenges.

The decline of traditional industries, growing housing pressures and competition from other retail centres are taking their toll on the community - and, oddly, the town had turned its back on the natural beauty of the River Avon.

When three mixed-use business, retail and housing sites that span the river became available, local people were presented with a potential solution to these problems. The challenge was to maximize the community benefit from these sites close to the town centre.

This was not an easy task for a large new, unitary authority such as Wiltshire Council with 18 similar-sized towns and neigbourhoods to consider. The community in Chippenham had the knowledge, ideas and time to make the most of the opportunity, but they could do so only with the council’s support.

Chippenham Vision was set up as a representative board focused on improving the town in the long-term. This has created a lot of goodwill and helped to nurture good relations with a capable and forward thinking town council.

Importantly, Chippenham Vision has a capable chair who is embedded in the local community and a director employed by the council who has good cross-departmental links. This voluntary leadership has helped to mobilise the community in Chippenham to organise a successful river festival that reawakened residents to the importance of the Avon.

When Chippenham Vision’s board commented on riverside development plans by saying, “could do better”, Council officers and members showed the willingness and confidence to ask, “how?”

The result is re-worked plans that conform with planning policy, better meet community aspirations and are painstakingly brokered with private developers who see the benefits of a mutually acceptable solution to housing, employment and shopping needs.

New mechanisms such as neighbourhood development orders proposed in the Localism Bill, will have an important role in paving the way for communities to benefit from such negotiations and will be an important aspect of the Vanguard learning.

However, our experiences at AMT in brokering planning decisions with communities and local authorities over the last 14 years, is that the best learning will come from those local authorities where the will precedes the detailed discussions about the way.

Chris Wade, chief executive, Action for Market Towns


Pick of the blogs: Regenerating coastal towns

Coastal towns are by definition on the periphery. Sometimes there is port business, like in Dover and Southampton, but they are otherwise not going to be a first choice for location sensitive businesses. There is a need for government intervention in these areas in the supply side of the economy. We need re-skilling and we need high bandwidth broadband – neither will come in response to the market.

Quality of life is great. Crime is very low. Schools and the NHS perform well. But we don’t have the high wage jobs. Our future is in attracting higher wage footloose industries in the digital economy, in both the high technology and creative industries – if we can offer the skills.

Beyond the economy we need policies on housing, transport and sustaining high quality public services. Until we raise the average wage significantly we need some rapid solutions on affordable housing. Seaside towns attract a lot of seasonal homelessness. There is too much sofa surfing as young couples struggle to leave home and set up on their own.

We did too little too late on housing when in office, and we now need new solutions in the towns of the periphery that rarely offer the big regeneration possibilities of the cities.

Jim Knight was Labour MP for Dorset South from 2001 to 2010 and is now a Labour Peer in the House of Lords.

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