Last week I wrote on BIMBYism, the Prince’s Foundation and their mission for beautiful development in keeping with tradition. When most of our politicians and developers are arguing about quantity, the Foundation argues that it is not housing numbers that people are opposed to but ugliness and socially damaging architecture.
One town trying to put this into practice is – appropriately – none other than Windsor.
Despite seven million tourist visitors per year, Windsor suffers from some of the worst rail connectivity of any town near London. It was recently described by TimeOut’s Ray Jones as “a wonderful place but almost impossible to get to by rail”. So it’s not surprising that 92 per cent of visitors come by road, even though these are often gridlocked.
The area of Windsor around the castle is very beautiful. It’s complemented by a lively array of shops and the historic town of mostly Georgian and Victorian architecture, loved by its residents. The riverside area, however, once heavy industrial, gas works and even slums has, however, not had the same love.
Railway arches that used to host thriving businesses are now mostly scuzzy and boarded up.
Alexandra Gardens, originally built by public subscription, is a shadow of its former self. See how it used to look (above right) and how it looks now (in the image below it). The park is overlooked by car parking. You can’t see the river as you once could. The park would benefit from being increased in size.
The remainder of the riverside is dominated by roads and parking.
It is a far cry from what other towns along the Thames, such as Richmond, have done.
The Windsor Link Railway (WLR) is a local initiative. It aims to be the first privately promoted and funded railway to be built for over 100 years. This proposes a £200 million tunnel to connect up the two existing rail branches, greatly improving connectivity to the town, and at the same time creating the opportunity to restore the gardens to their former glory and provide potentially several hundred new homes.
The WLR proposals involve raising Alexandra Gardens up to the same height as the flood defence so that the original vision of a riverside park is restore. This would also allow putting parking under the park (perhaps 1600 spaces could be provided in this way).
In a small-c conservative town where development of any type is often vehemently opposed, developers naturally try to work in private. By the time they get to statutory consultation, the design is already finished in the developer’s mind and they just want planning permission with the minimum cost. The Prince’s Foundation turns this approach on its head and asks residents what they think via a series of workshops starting with a blank sheet of paper.
WLR has imitated this approach but found it hard initially because you go public without a fully worked-up plan to defend and people are suspicious that it’s not just an elaborate wheeze to build tower blocks. However, just as the Foundation says, it results in much better support in the long-run. WLR has benefited from local input and a spot-poll by the local newspaper last month found 78 per cent support.
The scheme has also plugged into the community via the business neighbourhood plan for the town centre. Based on their ‘vision day’, the proposals will form a key part of the emerging plan. Better still there’s no incentive not to do what people want as it will all have to be confirmed by a referendum of local residents and businesses before the plan comes into force.
It is a tribute to the power of the planning reforms that a scheme as transformational as WLR can progress in such a sensitive location. What was once the preserve of planning officials is now in the hands of local people. It is also a testament to the priority that RBWM as a council has given to Big Society and making it work.