On Acquiring A Taste For Design

Maintaining control of local identity is not easy. Stratford District Council’s Andrew Wharton describes an initiative that helps villagers articulate their sense of place. The resulting Village Design Statements are powerful weapons in defending local heritage...

"It’s all a matter of taste!", "Will anybody take any notice of our views?", "How will it make any difference", "It’s all too late anyway"

I often hear the above despairing comments whilst encouraging rural communities to prepare their own Village Design Statements (VDS). Village design is a subject that tends to be thought of by many as an exclusive topic, reserved only for professionals and out of the jurisdiction of local people. This, of course, is not the case at all.

Responsive and appropriate village design has to be based on a clear understanding of the area and a thorough assessment of a locality’s distinct character.

Village life is about place and people and the complex relationship that exists between the two.

With a unique appreciation of the place you live and its physical character there comes an opportunity to set down a record of local characteristics together with some guidance on how this should influence the design of new development.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that new development should merely replicate local features or buildings. Good design takes account of existing character by integrating and responding to local context and place-specific qualities. .

This will promote new opportunities for architectural, building and landscape design that takes account of and promotes local identity

In an effort to promote a more sensitive approach to design, the Countryside Agency’s Village Design Statement initiative encourages local people to make an assessment of local character based upon their own knowledge and perception of their village and its surroundings. Community participation is at the heart of the initiative and co-ordinating community groups and Parish Councils aim to involve as many people as possible during the project, through workshops, exhibitions and other interactive activities. The information can then be used to draw together a village design statement that identifies, describes and illustrates local character that is valued by the community.

A village design statement project takes a closer look at village character in its entirety.

Character can be thought of as a series of overlapping layers and patterns shaped through time and by generations of people living and working in particular places. The village setting within the surrounding landscape is as important as street layout down to the finer scale of individual buildings and detailing.

The natural environment has influenced the buildings and materials, and wildlife and landscape distinctiveness also contributes to the rural setting and ecological richness of a village. This integrated approach is to be further encouraged in the design of new development in our villages.

For example, Stratford on Avon District Council have supported the initiative by working with local communities & Parish Councils in partnership with Warwickshire Rural Community Council in offering practical guidance and advice on the preparation of design statements.

When complete, a village design statement can be adopted by the District Council as Supplementary Planning Guidance so that it is linked directly into the statutory planning system and used alongside other policies and planning guidance when making decisions on planning applications.

Evidence is mounting that the design statements are already working and influencing planning decisions. Planning Inspectors expressed support in one recent appeal - "As a Planning Authority, we are keen to promote the design statements, particularly at preapplication stages where applicants can demonstrate their design rationale in relation to local context."

In January 1999, we helped celebrate the launch of the first seven completed village design statements with an event in Welford-on-Avon village hall. Along with 90 other guests from participating villages, local and regional organisations, the Countryside Agency’s Chief Executive Richard Wakeford as guest of honour helped to congratulate the achievements so far. The success of the initiative in South Warwickshire has captured the attention and acknowledgement from the Countryside Agency for leading the way nationally. The Agency’s Village Design Web page uses Welford-on-Avon’s design statement as a working example as well as providing useful contacts from other regions in the country.

Many other villages are nearing completion of their own village design statements. As the initiative evolves, it brings with it opportunities to explore the links and relationships between village design and rural socio-economic development that helps to sustain rural communities. Our recently prepared ‘Rural Strategy for Stratford-on-Avon District’, led by the planning service may represent the first step towards achieving a more integrated approach to rural communities and their needs.

So, a taste for design can prove to be a great asset in the fight to preserve your community’s unique heritage. See for yourself...

This Article first appeared in Local Council Review, Vol 51 No.6 January 2000, and is reproduced with the kind permission of the Editor ( James.Bowe@nalc.gov.uk )