Caernarvon castle square

Caernarvon’s a pretty amazing town. The castle dominates one side of the town square, linking the commercial hub to the Menai Strait, and the city walls are intact, providing a strong physical and historic context for the town. The castle itself is also very impressive.

A few years ago, the town square was dominated by vehicular routes, and was looked tired and run-down (see this website).  Enclosed on all sides and linking via four or five streets to surrounding areas it’s a location that deserved a full make-over, to breath new life into the heart of the town. The recently completed public works have done just that.

Since the work several years ago at Kensington High Street removing railings from the road side, and the consequent improvements in pedestrian safety, there are now a number of ‘shared space’ projects in the UK where pedestrians are prioritised in spaces shared with vehicle. Completed in 2009, Caernarvon Castle square is one of the largest recent shared space schemes I’ve seen.

The square is simply set out, with an area for the market to the south and street furniture together with tree planting and changes in material indicating a number of potential vehicle routes.

Observing from a cafe at the southern end of the square you can watch the interaction between people and traffic. Without any clear signage, drivers are unsure where to drive, or what route to take across the square, slowing their speeds. The lack of clear pedestrian separation also means that drivers are careful to negotiate the space with courtesy to pedestrians and cyclists.

A number of discrete finger-post signs are located in the corners of the square together with cycle parking – the only other parking originally set out was for disabled drivers and taxis, although now there seems to be a parking area to the east of the plaza adjacent to the water feature.

People using the square seem to mix without any real danger. As I watched the square was used by cyclists, taxis, cars and a coach party, shoppers and tourists. The new shared space seems to have invigorated the community feel of the square, and even on a cold day there were people chatting in the street, sitting at the tables and chairs, and lingering outside cafes. These are the spaces of social vitality that make a town viable, the ‘Great Good Places‘ as the social urbanist Ray Oldenburg describes them.

If I have one disappointment with Caernarvon town square, it is the railings that have been retained at some of the vehicular entrance points, and the fact that not all of the ugly street signage clutter has been able to be removed. I hope that other towns and cities will be bold enough to adopt this shared space approach with their focal public, civic spaces.

The other clear opportunity is to link the square better with the parking area for visitors to the Castle. At the moment the route from car park to square is pretty grim – you get to see some run down backs of buildings and blank retaining walls. But my understanding is that when some more money has been generated (bring on the Tax Increment Fund!), a new grand flight of steps will be cut into the western end of the square.

route to square from public car park by marina

This will lead nicely down to the marina area, where there is an obvious further opportunity for major improvements. I’d be excited if I lived here, to see what further public works could deliver.


Brighton seafront


Little boxes ... for about £12,000.

She sells sea cells on the sea-shore

Brighton seafront regeneration is a success story. In the late 1990s new boutiques, clubs, and studios began to open in the small spaces located underneath the promenade, generating a new vibe and bringing the seafront to life at night.

With new public spaces being generated along the seashore below the promenade, new opportunities for cafes, shops and sports clubs were opened up. It also, clearly, increased the price for a beach hut, now on sale at about £11-12k.The one fly in the ointment is the west pier, which stands as a beautiful monument to the dysfunctional planning system in the UK. In need of renovation and bought by a private company in 1965, then listed to protect it from changes, bankrupting the owners, and then passed on to a Trust, it was the late 1980s before any restoration work began.

By the time Heritage Lottery Fund scheme had been agreed, the pier partially collapsed and was burnt out in 2003/2004. Then the HLF withdrew the funding. Well done all round.

At least it makes for a romantic structure. And consent has been granted for the i360 at the base of the pier, designed by the London Eye guys.

Localism in Reading, Berkshire?

Rob Wilson, MP for Reading East, spoke at a conference run by Savills and Osborne Clark in Reading on 30 September. The theme of the conference was the delivery of homes under the Localism agenda.

The message from John Stewart of the HBF and the chief exec of Crest Nicholson homes was that the coalition has made a mess of the planing system by revoking the Regional Spatial Strategies for the location of new homes, and failing to replace it with anything.

Rob Wilson then delivered the standard lines from Tory HQ that the top-down system did not work (see his speech here), but offered no insights into how the localism agenda would work, or how homes that require a strategic framework (such as cross-border in Reading / West Berkshire) would be delivered.

At the end of the presentations, the audience was asked who in the room thought that Localism would deliver more homes than previously delivered (as the Tories claim). Not one hand was raised in the room. And the room was about one third full of local Councillors and local authority officers.

Planning for homes under the coalition

Back in February the Tories unveiled their planning green paper. It stated that they wanted to give environmental / physical planning powers back to the local areas.

The previous planning system (since 1990) was based on the preparation of Local Plans, but the most contentious issue of how many houses should be built in a local area were decided by the Region.

The Regional decisions on housing numbers were previously ‘forced’ on the local councils, which the Tories wanted to end.

One of the first things Eric Pickles (the new Secretary of State) did was to revoke the Regional Spatial Strategies, thus freeing local authorities of the vast housing numbers being forced on them. However, without these numbers, very few local authorities want to build more houses, because it generally upsets their electorate with the fear of increased traffic, loss of countryside and so on.

Pickles announced that in order to encourage local councils to permit new building, they would be offered a payment of 6 years council tax back to the council for every new house they build. But the housebuilders federation say that this is not working at all.

We are told that houseprices are so high, and increase so rapidly simply because the supply falls so far behind demand, and the gap is steadily increasing. Whilst it’s easy in the short term to reject housing in our local areas, I fear for the vast increases in house prices that our younger generation are likely to have, because we fail to build.

Interestingly, I noticed that Grant Shapps twittered on AUg 19th that ‘New house building is up 13% as communities start to appreciate ‘New Homes Bonus’ means sustainable building makes sense’. What nonsense! It takes the creaking planning system months to deliver new permissions, and they take months to implement. No-one even knows exactly how the proposed ‘new homes bonus’ will actually work yet.

I don’t disagree with the problems associated with the ‘top-down’ housing numbers approach, but what does rile me is the Tories line that Labour has failed to deliver homes, and they will do better. It’s taken years to get the regional strategies in place, planning for growth in the most sustainable way. Then the Tories simply ditch the whole strategy, and replace it with … incentives that interest no-one.