It is unfortunately true that very few people in Bishop's Stortford are aware that the District Council propose to permit the building of at least 3,000 houses on what are called in the District Plan the Areas of Special Restraint or, more usually, the ASRs. The purpose of this paper is to describe where they are, recount the history of their selection as a development site and to describe the disaster it would be for the town if this proposal is permitted.
They run from the Tesco roundabout to near the Mountbatten restaurant (formerly the old Red, White and Blue pub), bounded to the north by the bypass and to the south, going east by Hadham Road, Dane O'Coys Road, Foxdells lane and Rye Street. This is the last part of the town's periphery so far undeveloped and consists of the most attractive part of it. It is an undulating mixture of arable, pasture and woodland. There are good footpaths and Dane O'Coys road is almost traffic free, making it suitable for families walking and cycling. As it abuts the cricket ground and tennis courts in Cricket Field Lane, it gives immediate access to the countryside from the North and North West of the town.
Between 1981 and 1983 the Eyre Enquiry into the expansion of Stansted Airport calculated the number of so called airport related houses that would be needed for the significant expansion that was later granted. The County Council saw the ASRs as part of Hertfordshire's contribution to these houses in addition to the peripheral development along the new western bypass running from the Tesco roundabout to Spellbrook.
These calculations proved to be wildly inaccurate as the predominately low cost airlines using Stansted and much technological development meant that the number of staff - and therefore houses - was very much smaller than had been thought necessary.
This reduction was reinforced by Stansted's changed recruitment policy, first in North London then in Eastern Europe. BAA has said that they need no more airport related housing. However, EHDC still has an obligation in the District Plan to build another 692 airport related houses on the ASRs. This is based on an abstruse calculation that no one now understands and is in defiance of BAA's statement. It should be removed from the Local Development Framework (LDF)
The ASR's classification as a development site was made in 1986/7. Since then Stortford has changed dramatically, bearing the brunt of the District's housing and almost all of the airport related housing. Three large peripheral estates have been built at Bishop's Park, College Fields and St Michael's Mead, totalling about 2,000 houses. It is instructive to see the size of these estates and note that together they are but two thirds of what is intended for the ASRs. It is also salutary to see them on Sundays when they are, as someone said, just car parks with houses on. In addition the large hospital site,Jackson Square and other town Centre developments have been completed and the Railway Goods Yard and Charringtons, together with many other proposed housing sites shown in the District Plan, loom in the future.
No attempt seems to have been made to check the assumptions on which the original housing designation was based, despite this being a normal part of good planning practice. What has happened is that the ASR's have become ossified in the planning process and march on year by year in successive District Plans, and now the current Local Development Framewrork (LDF).
Although housing allocations have been part of a top down system over which EHDC have had little control, it remains true that retaining the ASRs in past District Plans and now the proposed LDF have permitted them to be allocated, as part of the 5 year housing reserve, against the District's allocation. This again shows how Stortford is unfairly treated. The Civic Federation have long argued that the optimum population for Bishop's Stortford is 40,000. Happily, we are supported by the Eastern Region who, in their Regional Scale Settlement Study (Section 9.5.3 ), say that the town has reached its natural capacity.
In 2005 the District Council engaged consultants to plan a settlement on the ASRs of about 3000 houses. One section of their report is so damning that it has been quoted in full (5.3.1 Key Issues)
There are two fundamental conclusions arising out of the appraisal of the town and area for growth that need special emphasis.
First, the issues and constraints presented by the existing highway network in Bishop's Stortford are so significant that this study must conclude that development should not go forward without current problems being resolved. As recommended by this study, a town-wide transport study of Bishop's Stortford is to be undertaken in the near future. The result of the town-wide study should be a town-wide transport movement and parking strategy that is integrated with a study with a strategy for the improvement of the public realm to the benefit of pedestrians and cyclists.
Secondly, the question of access to the area for growth from the A120 remains unresolved. The County Council has stated that access to the site from the A120 is a “last resort” due to the strategic aim of dualling the route. A knock-on from this position is that any proposals that do not use the A120 will put greater strain on the network within Bishop's Stortford and so add further complexities to resolving the problems that need to be resolved prior to going forward with development.
The Transport Study mentioned was commissioned by the District and County Councils with a specific request in the terms of reference to provide a solution to the problems mentioned by the consultants. This was not done, the matter being left to whoever developed the site. The only specific recommendation was for the establishment of a Park and Ride system on the ASRs. Although the study recognised the serious congestion problem, the solution was far greater use of public transport, cycles and walking. Unfortunately, recommendations such as these are mostly ignored. No social change has ever been achieved without legislation. For example, the deleterious effects of smoking, lead in petrol and stubble burning were well known but nothing happened until there was compulsion. Their other suggestion was to complete the south eastern bypass but there is little hope of that.
The fact that park and ride in a town of the size of Bishop's Stortford would be uneconomic was ignored. The most significant fact that the study did reveal was that it would take 23 minutes for a car to leave the ASR village onto the Hadham Road. The only remedy was to create an exit, via a roundabout, onto the northern by-pass. However, the Highways Department was very unhappy with this as it would feed local traffic onto a through route.
These almost insuperable deficiencies are compounded by two other factors; first, that when the present recession is over Stansted will start to expand to the new limit of 35 million passengers a year, increasing traffic from the west using the bypass; secondly, there will be a marked increase in traffic from the nearby Essex villages into Stortford. Two large estates, one of 650 houses in Stansted and another of 800 houses in Takeley are in the process of construction.
Although congestion remains the major issue, an estate of this size would have effects on the town's infrastructure, in particular education, medicine and parking. As well, the Environment Agency produced in 2006 a Catchment Abstraction Management survey. The entry for the Upper Stort said:
This river was assessed as "over-abstracted" and was found to have insufficient flows to meet the environmental need at all times, even at times of high flows. In order to preserve the ecological habitats no further licenses for consumption purposes will be granted in this catchment.
The final question about developing the ASRs is whether it is a sustainable development. Much rubbish is talked about sustainability, usually by developers. It does not mean that estates are built near a bus stop or a primary school or a doctor's surgery; this is just moderately intelligent planning. To get to the correct definition it is necessary to go back to the source of the concept of sustainability which was the UN commission chaired by the Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland in the 1980s. This said that sustainable development is that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs; in more simple terms it means that we should not destroy something which future generations would find valuable.
Some environmentalists go further by saying that sustainable development is an oxymoron as all development must entail environmental degradation. Nevertheless, it is clear that to destroy such an area of agricultural diversity and recreational value would clearly be unsustainable.
The disastrous consequences of building on the ASRs on Bishop's Stortford should by now be clear. But there will be other sufferers. The nearby villages of Much Hadham and Little Hadham, Albury, Stansted, Birchanger and Takeley will be faced with the blight of a semi permanent traffic jam affecting their centres, their amenities and, most importantly, their local employment opportunities.
It is now time for reality to be faced. The District Council must abandon this ridiculous proposal which everyone in the town knows would destroy all those things which people think are valuable about their town. The ASRs must be re-defined as Green Belt land so that the most valuable part of the town's periphery is preserved for ever.