Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Luton Friends of the Earth (GRI 20)


  1.  Businesses come and businesses go. Regeneration means attracting new business to disused sites with a history of employment use. This gives continuity and a sense of place. Occasional exceptions to this must indeed be occasional exceptions, for which there must be very sound reasons, and these must not be allowed to set a precedent and become the rule.

  2.  Urban employment sites fulfil an extremely valuable role. They enable a substantial number of people to work locally. This keeps traffic levels down. It allows people to use public transport and bicycles. Long distance commuting is stressful, has a negative impact on families, on other travellers, and on everyone's environment and health. The CBI has calculated that billions are lost through the inefficiency and knock-on effects of travelling to and during work. Working locally keeps families together and would build a happier, more positive society from today's children.

  3.  In Luton the council has instead allowed Housebuilding on many of its important urban employment sites. The large gasworks site in Dallow ward is filled with newly built houses. Dallow now has one of the highest unemployment rates in Southern England. The Electrolux and Whitbread sites, with convenient motorway access, are now also nearly filled with houses. The Croda site, with its old buildings and green lawns, would have been ideal for the University, but these have been demolished and dug up, and houses are about to fill this too. The suspicion cannot be avoided that the same scenario is likely for at least part of the recently vacated giant Vauxhall site. No new green spaces in the town have been created. A vast number have been lost.

  4.  Many old buildings in Luton, extremely well built to last many lifetimes by a previous generation, have been lost. Government guidance puts a high priority on retaining and reusing our buildings and heritage. New building today often has an expected lifespan of 25 years. The quality of materials, design, construction, and aesthetic appearance of today's buildings, particularly giant sheds, is almost universally inferior to what it replaces, with the exception of some ugly and dangerous concrete tower blocks of the sixties.

  5.  In Luton the community is not consulted on such matters—its view is considered unimportant. The aim is to get development and money into the council—environmental and social cost is scarcely considered. Luton Council could have regularly insisted on the sustainable option—planning permission could have been dependent on existing buildings being converted instead of demolished, saving materials, energy, transport and our history. But this almost never happens. It is planning without vision. It is a local disaster, doubtless being replicated throughout Britain.

  6.  Regeneration does NOT mean building on Green Belt. This is unsustainable—once agricultural land or wildlife habitat is gone, it is gone forever, and urban sprawl leads to a poorer quality of life. It reduces people's understanding of, and relationship with nature. It swallows up villages, historic buildings, old trees, and other landmarks, destroying and sanitising the character of the landscape, sterilising the diversity of the environment.

  7.  Building in Green Belt brings more roads, more development. It generates many new car and lorry journeys, causing congestion, pollution, noise, stress and ill-health for residents who chose to live in peaceful surroundings at the edge of the countryside. Greater expanses of concrete, and removal of trees and vegetation which absorb water, puts pressure on water supplies, and increases fast run-off into rivers, with more oil pollution from standing vehicles, and likelihood of flooding.

  8.  All these negative impacts are in no way balanced by beneficial impacts. Frequently such development fails to provide significant local jobs, so increasing unnecessary road journeys.

  9.  The whole process is a negative downward spiral, degrading society, sense of place, and civic pride. A less natural environment for young people to grow up in, less to interest them, less in their surroundings for them to respect. A car culture, where it is normal for cars to be stolen, dumped, torched and left in the streets. More litter, more crime, less personal responsibility—people still realise they are deprived of rights, but the situation is too hopeless to be able to do anything to change it. A less stable society.

  10.  Luton is a run-down, deprived area. It has way below the amount of green spaces needed for a healthy, relaxed society. The positive benefits of government grants for small community improvements are insignificant in the giant shadow of a plan for 30,000 more houses in South Bedfordshire and big new industrial areas in our overcrowded town. Luton is FULL, and this must be recognised both by the local authorities and the government. It is simply not possible—and indeed, not healthy, for all relatives and succeeding generations of those living here now to live here too. The country needs diversity.

  11.  This is what "Regeneration" means when it is misused to build on people's natural heritage, our countryside, and to allow towns to sprawl out of control. Yet this madness is exactly what is proposed in the government's new proposals.

  12.  What can be the reason for this absurd rush to lower the standards in our society? The only apparent reason seems to be the drive for "competitiveness". But short-term gain for a few people running corporations at the expense of the degradation of society described above is building on sand. It is the wrong policy, storing up far greater troubles ahead. The government must learn that it is elected by the people to protect and develop society sustainably, not to prop up big business, which has narrow vision and for whom thinking about the wider context is not a priority.

  13.  It is government's responsibility to see the big picture and plan for the future, and because government can only see what business tells it to—more bricks and mortar, more roads—government is failing dramatically. It must learn that it has to invest money in the long-term future of society, in community, in its citizens, not the short-term future of transient businesses which have no loyalty towards any government. Many of these businesses have shown their colours in the last year—their morally bankrupt policies have been exposed for all to see. The environmental policy statements asked for by Blair did not appear, and many that did were tokenism, greenwash.

  14.  The south of the UK is already unacceptably top-heavy and over-populated. There is a pressing need, acknowledged by many, to reverse the north-south, rich-poor divide in the UK, the mass migration from north to south. Yet the new government proposals seem deliberately designed to accelerate this lack of equity, fuelling this migration—to make things worse. This is the opposite of sustainability. These plans, to concrete over much of the south of England, which means so much to those who live and work here, display a shocking lack of vision. Whoever produced them must be removed and replaced with people who understand what sustainability really means.


  [Please see attached docs Bgob700.doc & Bgob301.doc for details of how the community were kept out of this planning decision—councillors would not even recognise that they had a duty to read objections before making their decision!]

  15.  This is one of the last large green open spaces within Luton's boundary. For years Luton Council has misled the public into thinking they could not prevent it from being developed: only decide what the development might be. The Council openly claimed that an inspector's view that the site "might be suitable for development" was actually an instruction that it must be developed. They instilled a deep sense of helplessness into the local community that there was nothing they could do to preserve their much loved open countryside for future generations to enjoy. Despite this there have always been large turnouts to any public meetings to discuss the proposals, and all who attend are opposed, even though they are told they can only complain about details, not the development in principle.

  16.  A previous council once argued that this edge of town green countryside site was of the same quality as the Chilterns AONB which surrounds it, and any geographer would agree with this. While the council has insisted that it must have regeneration money to progress development here, it has, at the same time, ensured that all other sizeable "brownfield" or ex-industrial sites in the town have been deliberately sacrificed to housing developments.

  17.  These have included prime sites with excellent access to the motorway at Whitbread/Electrolux; the gas works site in the highest unemployment black spot in the region (Dallow); and the Croda site nearer the town centre, which would have made an excellent site for new university facilities that the council had long argued could only be sited at Butterfield Green. It seems certain that the council strategy is to use up all sites at which sustainable development might be carried out, in order to force the expansion of the town into the surrounding countryside: they even ignored MP Margaret Moran's urgent request that they withhold permission for Butterfield until the future of the Vauxhall site was assured.

  18.  When the public heard that they were intending to part finance the Butterfield development with SRB money, there was a large turn out at a public meeting held to elect community representatives on to the Partnership that was to oversee the local bids (actually cut and dried by the council before asking the public). They were to find out, however, that the major part of the bid had been predetermined by the council and developers, and that the "Community Liaison Group", which the meeting was to create, would only be able to look at projects with a "community" angle! There were many complaints about this, and eventually the CLG did become a useful community voice that still works to this day. Large, council-championed projects, however—such as the Gas works development—continued, despite being the antithesis of sustainability. The Butterfield plan was, however, diverted to the Objective two scheme.

  19.  Objective two was, as with the SRB, kept quiet from the public until the bid was cut and dried, despite the fact that the council was about to set up the Luton Assembly which should have been the Local Strategic Partnership for the purposes of the guidance. It seems clear that the council wanted this scheme irrevocable before involving the public (even at Assembly meetings they have not advised that planning is part of the remit!).

  20.  At the packed public meeting on 15 September 2000 to force the Stopsley people to accept the massive Butterfield development, one of us asked planning officer Ian Slater about the Local Area Groups who were supposed to be getting up the bids for O2. Other parts of the town had been allowed to bring ideas forward from the community, so we asked who was on the LAG in Stopsley who had put forward the Butterfield idea. We were told: "The Crown Estate; The University ; and the Council". Asked why they hadn't invited us or Stopsley people to take part, we were told that we were known to be against the development so there was no point in inviting us!

  21.  It is clear that any minor improvements to the community that have resulted from SRB, and other regeneration funding schemes, have largely come from the work of the voluntary sector on small projects, and that these efforts have been totally overwhelmed by the massively destructive and unsustainable projects that have been forced through by the council. The replacement of in-town employment sites with housing, and championing of out of town industry turns sustainability on its head: it causes massively increased commuting from the speculative element of the housing; it makes it harder for local people to compete on the housing market; and it robs the unemployed of local, sustainable, opportunities for work, making them compete in increased traffic to get to any jobs that they are lucky enough to find.

  22.  In Luton, "regeneration" money has enabled unsustainable developments to go ahead which might never have been able to get off the ground otherwise. In the case of Butterfield this is an unmitigated disaster which proper public access to justice within the Planning (haha) System would have prevented. As this government has shown that it is determined to further reduce public rights within the system, the future looks bleak indeed for "democratic accountability".


  23.  One of the best projects that would encourage regeneration throughout the region would be to reopen the railway tracks between Luton and Dunstable, and extend them to Leighton Buzzard, either for trains or light rail, to provide a strategic link to and from the many stations on the Midland Mainline and the West Coast Mainline. This line was due to be re-opened by Network South East in 1989, and could have helped to take some freight on to rail, and reduce traffic on the M1 and A5. It would also have brought integrated transport to the area, improving bus services, which could link to the rail or tramway, as happens so successfully in Croydon. But for the last 13 years the area has been blighted by a blinkered insistence by Luton and Beds Councils that a local guided busway was their favoured solution in the face of common sense, substantial opposition by the voluntary sector, and the vast majority of public opinion. We know virtually no one outside these local authorities who in the last 13 years has called for a busway.

  24.  Successive government consultants have confirmed that the cost benefit analysis does not stand up; there are no investors for such a project, including the local bus monopoly; busway construction, unlike rail, which could be open far sooner, would require massive engineering work and disruption. And this great expense for what? The end result would attract no one from their cars to help relieve the chronic congestion and pollution suffered by those who must travel east-west within or through South Bedfordshire. In the meantime new railway lines and tramways have proved successful beyond expectation in the UK wherever they have opened. Bidders, if invited to tender for a rail or light rail scheme, would flock here. All that is needed is a change in the stagnation of political views of the few people wielding power in this area. A strong message must now come from government to say "enough is enough—give the people of South Beds the rail-based public transport they have wanted for so long".

  25.  We think it is an ill omen that the Luton representative who has championed all these unsustainable and undemocratic schemes, and the proposed new road schemes that would render Luton's surrounding countryside unrecognisable, is now head of the regional planning conference for the entire region!


  26.  A member of Luton Friends of the Earth sits on the steering group of the new Luton Assembly, as one of 11 voluntary representatives on the LSP (locally called Luton Forum). The LSP was well established before the election of the Assembly four months ago, so structures and processes were in place already which the Assembly had to fit in with. Assembly steering group members have to attend meetings at least twice a month. The Assembly itself meets every two months and attracts about 50 voluntary group representatives. It is supposedly an integral part of the Forum, and indeed most of the questioning of policy and proposals has come from Assembly members. But so far the Assembly's views have made little difference to policy, and its main activities have related to prioritising projects presented to it at very short notice, and trying to add its own new ideas, for Neighbourhood Renewal Funding.

  27.  The Assembly has now been presented with a draft Community Strategy which all view as inadequate, yet again there is a very tight deadline in which to make difficult decisions. The Assembly has not been told, let alone encouraged, to engage in any kind of planning role. Regeneration in the sense that Luton Council usually means, as a large blunt planning instrument, has scarcely been discussed.

  28.  We currently have massive threats to quality of life and environment in the shape of—a) two unsustainable proposals for expansion of Luton Airport by means of new runways, which ignore all demand management principles and the fact that a parallel taxiway would treble existing capacity; and b) road and development proposals have just entered the public arena —our greenbelt and areas of outstanding natural beauty, particularly precious in this overdeveloped town, is threatened by a giant road network (which would pass beside the Butterfield development) and 30,000 houses—again, totally unsustainable. This would change forever the character of Luton, losing vast tracts of beautiful countryside, generating tens of thousands of new journeys and causing gridlock.

  29.  How the community and the Assembly might be able to react to these major development proposals is uncertain. In the course of the next year we hope to begin to take steps to achieve positive change, but we are a small voice against a vast array of corporate adversity and apparent refusal by Government Office to apply sustainability guidelines, and so far there is little progress to report.

David Oakley-Hill and Steve Hawkins

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