The opportunity to design a housing development in Blackburn was something that energised Gerardine and Wayne.
I often get asked for my career highlight and my answer for the past decade or so has been The Staiths South Bank in Gateshead, our first housing development. It was one of those rare projects that, despite the multitude of hurdles that comes with the delivery of very large scale housing developments, is a clear success for everyone involved (happily including the local community).
We have another large housing development that is coming out of the ground and currently welcoming its first residents, this time in the town I was brought up in – Blackburn. The development is Green Hills Blackburn which, unlike The Staiths, is not on previously used land.
Such is the housing need and shortage of decently designed developments in Blackburn, the town badly needs something as aspirational (yet affordable) and in such a desirable location as Green Hills.
What makes me so proud is that this really is a coming together of so many elements of housing delivery that very rarely happen together.
Firstly, this is a development being delivered by a local SME developer, Kingswood Homes. So many local SME developers were wiped out in the housing led financial crash of 2008, leaving the landscape open for the current, totally unsatisfactory domination of housing delivery by the totally shareholder / profit driven top five housebuilders (top five by size only – not quality or social value!). The recovery of the SME sector has been slow because skills and materials have been gobbled up by the ‘top five’ and because banks have been much more careful in their lending.
What you often get with an SME developer is a commitment to local materials, local labour and the fact that “you don’t sh*t on your own doorstep” is often a truism.
Kingswood was able to get its foot in the door at Green Hills because the land is owned by a family with a long history in the town, The Feildens who, in turn, appointed land agent Rule Five to ensure that localism prevailed and that their legacy was a positive one.
Rule Five appointed Kingswood and asked two designers, Gerardine and myself with local roots to lead on the vision and the design detail. We assembled some of the team from The Staiths (including Mark and Jane Massey from IDP) and thus we had the “dream team” of landowners, developer, designers and a pro-active Blackburn with Darwen planning department; a local PR team in Law of the Few, a supportive local media and a town that is starting to feel more confident about its future than it has for many years.
There is a positivity flowing throughout the development. The tradesmen greet you with a smile, there is genuine excitement and a feeling of “we are all in this together” from the pioneering early residents.
The final proof that Green Hills is a very special project is that on a piece of land adjacent to the site, an estate of identikit, bog-standard homes are being delivered and being sold at just about the same price as Green Hills. Clearly this estate doesn’t have the same “love” being afforded it and is not doing justice to the locale, the views, or the town it is located in.
This development demonstrates even more the value that beauty, intelligent planning, beautifully conceived green spaces, a social conscience, the realism of what good design can do for quality of life and how important leaving a legacy is to placemaking.