This week the Ashbourne Plan team published the results of the first wave of consultation on the Neighbourhood Plan. There were some interesting findings as it highlighted the most common topics that people liked and disliked about our town and the things we want to keep or change. One of the most mentioned items was the desire to keep the “character” of the town. This is one of those difficult words like “culture” which can be incredibly difficult to pin down. How can you preserve something you can’t define.
This possibly personifies the task we all have but also the importance of getting it right. You could argue that, given we all choose to live here, we will all want to preserve the character Of what we bought into. The problem is that in our heads we all define “character” differently.
The last Local Plan introduced the concept of the Heritage Area which has been swiftly laid bare as a lazy interpretation of “character”. It tried to interpret it as landscape or architecture and, unfortunately, this seems to have been pounced upon by those with a vested interest to “pickle” a large part of the town centre and, in doing so, pickle the bad parts as well as the good.
Two of the more ridiculous interpretations of the Heritage Area show this well. Someone in their wisdom decided there should be a palette for shop fronts in the town. The palette selected paid no attention to historical Georgian reality but created a Disney-like uniformity if the sort you find on country estates or Holiday parks. When a couple of retailers refreshed their paintwork they were forced to revert to their previous colour-scheme. The new colour chosen wasn’t offensive and no-one in the town considered it gaudy. There was even supporting evidence to suggest it reflected and “rules is rules”. If I could choose one characteristic of our community and it’s Shrovetide spirit I would suggest that jobsworthiness and pettiness would feature pretty low down on the list. If I was more cynical I would suggest that one or more of the other retailers were troublemaking and it had nothing whatsoever to do with protecting Ashbourne.
Take also the case of the Coffee Stop on Shawcroft. For years there had been a mobile (but almost always static) butcher’s van on the site which has won awards and supported Ashbourne loyally. They sold the site to the cafe and created their own fixed premises nearby. So far so good…this begins as a story of successful enterprise and wealth creation. Moreover the Coffee Stop was a very distinct cafe offering – not really competing with the other cafes as it was outdoor and overlooking a busy car park. Out of the blue the Planners got involved and the Coffee Stop was closed. The principle reason was that they breached the Heritage Area rules. The reason the challenge was made was that, while the butchers had very occasionally and very temporarily, moved the van off the site before returning, Coffee Stop had not done so. This opened the door for someone..again I don’t want to be cynical… to get the Council involved. There then followed a very strange interpretation of the legislation in which someone assessed that the Coffee Stop spoiled the nature of the Heritage Area. I presume it spoiled the nature of it for those standing on tiptoes to see over the air conditioning units, bins, car parks and recycling areas. Anyone other than an interested competitor or landlord would look at the situation and declare it ridiculous. The recent pictures here show just how much you could choose to comment on if you surveyed the land use within the Heritage Area
This is what the Neighbourhood Plan is all about for me. At a high level the previous Local Plan meant absolutely nothing. It was just a set of words that could be very damaging to Ashbourne through the way it could be interpreted. The Neighbourhood Plan is a way of sharpening the new one so that it represents the views of the majority. We can be quite specific about what we do or don’t mean. We don’t probably want neon signs and inflatables on the High Street but we can allow colour schemes and adornments which don’t cause offence. Personally I would like the market square protecting as an open space and I would like as much pedestrian space in the town centre as possible. I would like a big parking initiative which aims to provide at least 500 new parking spaces on a single site between Waterside and the town centre. I would like tighter control over the enforcement of planning approvals being followed through. I would like the Recreation Ground to be protected but I don’t want the Heritage Area to continue – the normal historic building controls should be enough. I don’t want a bypass for the town because I can see the economic benefits of bringing people into the town. I would like new housing to be focused on the part of the Airfield which is within Ashbourne. Of course, many people won’t share my views but I am very happy to abide by the views of a democratic majority.
The “character” of the town may prove very difficult to define but it is well worth the effort. It may well prove to be the sum of lots of small things rather than a single statement or paragraph. It may also be easier to describe as an aspiration rather than what we currently have.