Category: The Great Neighbourhood Award
Date of visit: July 2016
Assessor: Tim Challans
1. The landowner driven approach is very innovative and brave but financially high risk. It introduces a level of control and attention to detail that ensures high quality master planning, design and development. The planned release of relatively small sites (including some self build) also creates a variety and diversity of building and housing types suited to a variety of needs.
2. It has many financial risks, not least the need to invest in roads and other infrastructure at an early stage before developer partnerships are created plus the allied risks of those partnerships going wrong and the vagaries of the housing market.
3. Newhall is a welcome approach to housing/community development that respects the best elements of the historical legacy of Harlow. Its location, strong urban design and large proportion of owner occupied houses it will probably avoid many of the problems that have occurred in the former New Town.
4. It may be too early to assess the success of Newhall as a vibrant and sustainable urban neighbourhood; however, it clearly offers a well-designed, denser, more varied, and intelligently planned alternative to typical housebuilder suburbia. Its commercial viability demonstrates that the housing market is more receptive to contemporary and innovative design than the big housebuilders would conveniently have us believe.
5. The agreement on design and layout between NPL and site developers before certainly supports the planning application process. It is also helped by the support and endorsement from Harlow Council.
British urbanists are aware of the significance of Sir Frederick Gibberd’s post war Harlow New Town that sadly has become rundown and unattractive to investors in recent years. However, high prices in London and Harlow’s good road connections and train services to Liverpool Street make it a more attractive proposition. As a result Harlow is attracting new employers and improving the housing stock. Newhall is an example of how sensitive neighbourhood development can help revive the former New Town and create a unique living environment.
The landowner’s company, Newhall Projects Ltd with the professional support of Roger Evans Associates is developing the area on former farmland and working closely with Harlow Council and Essex County Council. The landowner developed a master plan for the site to ensure proper access to it, basic infrastructure and linkages to Harlow plus the allocation of space for schools, retail and other services required to support a largely residential development. The key to the uniqueness and success of the development is that NPL has retained control of what is built. It has worked with a number of developers but has only allocated sites to them on the basis of the quality of the architecture and urban design that they submit. Therefore, prior to the planning application stage the quantity, type and design of developments has already been agreed with the landowner. The landowner has only developed one site itself, but takes on the huge financial risk of creating the infrastructure for developers.
The neighbourhood is connected to the wider facilities and road network of Harlow and it has retained the general principles of Gibberd’s plan of housing interleaved with green wedges. From a commercial point of view, the scheme has sold at higher prices than the surrounding area and it is also helping to improve the image of Harlow by providing a much greater choice of homes. From a community point of view, the scheme is enabling people who live in Harlow to trade up, and may also in time help in attracting staff working for the new employers such as health professionals working for NICE. It also contains ‘invisible’ social housing developed by housing associations.
Only the first phase has been completed but NPL has invested in roads and other infrastructure for subsequent phases. Although originally a greenfield site a community is evolving and residents have access to NPL and are getting more involved in the area. A community centre is being created out of an existing barn and paid for from the maintenance charge made to all the residents. Some homes have been built with flexible work/live spaces on the ground floor so that small businesses can be established without requiring further planning permissions many of these are private offices services are being set up in response to local needs. A Montessori pre-school group has also been opened.
The development is very sensitively designed and controlled by NPL, therefore it does not have the anonymity that would be created by a more commercial single developer. Through a variety of architecture and design, the mix of small-scale developments, open space and townscape creates a very distinctive sense of place. The buildings certainly reflect contemporary lifestyles and are not pastiches of older building types however, the retention of the Gibberd principles, including the use of public art, respects the heritage of the area. The buildings are designed to have low energy usage and research into the local landscape and geology has influenced the very careful development of a colour palette for buildings and public realm, which works very well. The choice and quality of details, such as road and pedestrian surfaces is important to the developer and contributes to its distinctiveness as a place. Housing has been built to above average sustainability standards and renewable energy standards are included in planning conditions. Most of the spoil has been retained on site to create earth sculptures and it was an early and noted adopter of SUDS.
Newhall is designed as a safe environment and the road network and traffic restrictions give priority to pedestrians. It is safe for cyclists and will soon be connected to the local bus services, linking it to the local recreation and retail opportunities Cars are still a primary form of transport within the town and we noted that residents are reluctant to use off street garages and parking areas and when possible are parking on the roads. Although this worries the developers, it does create interest and activity in the streets.
Newhall has an increasingly diverse range of building typologies and functions within a loose grid layout that offers a well–balanced combination of clarity and surprise. This flexibly ordered and diverse framework should be conducive to the messy vitality that will allow Newhall to transcend suburban conformity.