Development was proceeding at a substantial pace offering the prospect of a better future, if only it could be properly steered. There were three essential components to the task:
- Long term vision: Both the formulation and implementation of policy depended on a long-term view not just of evolving physical form but also an appreciation of how land values would increase over time and how this would facilitate a move towards more intensive development, a mix of uses and an urban renaissance in the town centre.
- Published policy: All parties in the development process needed to know the position of the planning authority at an early stage and to know it clearly. The Chelmsford approach had four components: a clear physically-based spatial strategy; strong and clear design principles; adoption of the 1997 Essex Design Guide; and briefs for all significant sites.
- Investment in staff: There is no substitute for having people with the required expertise. Between 1997 and 2003, an implementation team of five urban designers was created, additional to all other planning staff.
The physically-based spatial strategy for the Borough related intensity of development to accessibility, in particular reduction of the need to travel and travel by sustainable modes. The accessibility principles led logically to the promotion of an urban renaissance involving the intensive use of previously developed town-centre land. They also led to the need for access to open green areas both within the redeveloped areas and through “green wedges” linking them to the suburbs and countryside. The “green wedges” provided not only recreational opportunities but also enhanced the environment for walking and cycling.
The briefs covered a variety of formats but all sought to include unambiguous guidance on physical form, including specification of blocks and frontages. The frequency, quality and clarity of the briefs increased over time until by 2003 they were appearing at the rate of one or two per month.
The results on the ground
While many of the results are still to come, some remarkable changes can already be seen on the ground, not just the new buildings but also the renewed public realm. There is now an air of vibrancy and sophistication in the shops, bars and cafes surrounding the public spaces that give the lie to the old image and jokes. The quality of the architecture has increased markedly and housing proposals in the central area are now architect-designed for the particular site rather than standard units. New development in the suburbs and villages is in the form of houses and gardens reflecting the higher-density urban approach of the Essex Design Guide. The green corridors formed from the river valleys are now well used by pedestrians and cyclists. If there is a message here it is that strong planning intervention can lead to quality architecture and reinvigorated public spaces.