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Newsletter, January 2010 (Issue 178)

Our Town: The Next Decade

The Local Development Framework (LDF) for Ipswich has begun its final Submission Stage with a public consultation on the revised Core Strategy and Policies document. The LDF is not a plan but rather a statement of the uses to which land within the Borough might reasonably be put over the coming years and which, by implication, protects sites from unsuitable forms of development.

Within the LDF, the Strategy document summarises the Borough's vision for Ipswich and the means by which it might be achieved. For although individual residents may understandably be interested only in the sites which affect them directly (consultation on which will follow in 2010) the LDF is concerned with how well Ipswich serves everyone who lives or works here or who visits the town. A relatively simple statement of the core principles and values for the whole town is therefore essential to provide this broader perspective, and for guiding development towards the desired outcome through times of rapid change and uncertainty. The document has benefited from the past stages of public consultation and I believe the Borough's planners are to be commended for producing a well balanced response to the likely challenges of the next decade.

But striking a balance between individual interests and the common good is almost bound to be controversial. "Why build more roads to create more traffic?" "Why build on greenfield sites when there are brownfield sites for redevelopment?" Then again: "Where is the sense in focusing all the new development on a flood plain which is as yet unprotected and increasingly vulnerable to storm surges, as we saw only two years ago?" "Why try to squeeze so many fragile eggs into such a small lP-One basket?" It is all too easy to propose that the burden of change should fall in someone else's backyard, to the detriment of their legitimate requirements and quality of life.

Clearly the LDF has to cater for uncertain demands that will affect our lifestyles over the coming decades. There will be growth. But will it be more of the same, based on using the private car for work and play? Or will a response to climate change, the depletion of global resources and shortages of water and food finally necessitate a more sustainable lifestyle based around local communities?

The answer for the critical next decade is probably both. Whether or not Copenhagen will by now have provided any meaningful global agreement on climate change, we will remain dependent on car use for many years to come, but eventually this must give way to a low-carbon way of life, one way or another. Hence it may make perfect sense to focus development on the town centre, to divert traffic from the central area on to a new and effective east-west route via a new Wet Dock Crossing, and to provide all the necessities of life within easy non-car access. But will those many thousands of pioneering non-motoring flat-dwellers, crammed into their single square mile of IP-One, appreciate the quality of their new life-style? Will all their needs have been anticipated and met? Crucially, will their high-density flats - many of which have already been built - be designed to withstand the heat waves of a warming climate without the devastation that was suffered in Europe in 2003, when many thousands of people succumbed to the heat? A recent UKCIP Report emphasises that such dwellings must be appropriately designed from the outset; retro- fitting is not an option.

The latest version of the Core Strategy recognises recent changes in the housing market and the need for more family dwellings, in numbers which can be provided only by developing the Northern Fringe, but again in a strategic rather than an ad hoc manner which would include all necessary local amenities and green spaces. But what will the residual transport needs be, and how will they be satisfied? Several thousand new residents on the Northern Fringe will surely need to move around, and if car use will still be significant, then surely this additional demand will warrant further consideration of a northern by-pass - which would already be valuable as a secure diversion route other than through central Ipswich for when the Orwell Bridge is closed by accident or increasingly frequent bad weather. For even if car use declines, it is hard to imagine the cessation of container traffic from Felixstowe to the rest of the country.

Ipswich is growing. Everyone who already lives in Ipswich has contributed to that story, so we cannot in all conscience deny for others what we already enjoy. If we object to new houses being built on greenfield land, what sort of land was it that our houses were originally built on? If we object to congested roads, is it everyone else's cars that cause the jams, or are we contributing too? If we have the secret to a car-free life, is it equally applicable to everyone else? We all value our individual quality of life but we must also have regard for everyone else's, and the LDF is a key part of managing that balance.

Some, perhaps many, of the aspirations in the Strategy will not be realised. An effective Wet Dock crossing route would indeed be needed before the Star Lane gyratory could be liberated for pedestrians. However, the need for a northern by-pass to facilitate movements around a developed Northern Fringe is less predictable. But if those new residents use their cars as much as the rest of us, how will the present roads (and their present residents) in the north of Ipswich cope? With no anticipation of such consequences in the Strategy, the corresponding aspirations will definitely not be realised, and that will be to someone's significant detriment.

The town faces big challenges in the coming years, as do other towns, and there is much more to consider than can be related in a few short paragraphs. It is intuitively hard to imagine, for instance, that there would not be a future role for town centres in a low-carbon world. But will retail be the dominant feature, or is it a forlorn hope that the town's retail offer can be re-vitalised after the ravages of out-of-town and on-line shopping? The proper future role for the town centre is perhaps a consideration for the LDF for 2031. One thing is certain: life is changing. and we would be wise to anticipate and adapt to the changes. The challenge for democracy and social cohesion is whether we do it in co-operation or in competition, assuming we do it at all.

Many commentators are saying that democracy itself is at risk, though I suggest the scandal of MPs' expenses, serious though it is, is a poor reason in comparison to the social climate which made such a scandal possible, and pales into insignificance compared with the credit crunch I would suggest instead that democracy must progress. Many decades of globalisation have had the same effect on national economies as the wind-tunnel has had on car design, namely that in any individual class of car, they all look the same. This is of necessity, driven by performance requirements and the limiting effects of nature. In politics as in nature, both globally and locally, we are approaching the limits of what is possible, and we have to move with the times and learn how to live with each other and with the environment which supports us, or be prepared for the consequences. To that extent, the LDF is perhaps a shining example of democracy in action!

MIKE BRAIN (mikebrain1@btinternet.com)

    Front cover of issue 178 Cover, issue 178

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