How Museum of East Anglian Life got the balance right with Planning

The government is consulting on a revision of the National Policy Planning Framework. They say there are to give local people more say in development matters in their area. They also say planning applications will favour the presumption of ‘sustainable development and they propose to reduce official guidance from over 1000 pages to 20. The proposals, which suggests that roads to airports and motorway service stations could count as ‘sustainable development’ have alarmed bodies like The National Trust. Their Chief Executive Fiona Reynolds questioned the ‘dash for economic growth ‘at the expense of the natural environment . They fear proposals  loosen the safeguards of the green belt and encourages even greater in-fill of green spaces. In more stern tones the activist, George Monbiot notes that the only beneficiaries from the reform will be corporate power, cronyism and plutocractic greed

At MEAL we’ve had our fair share of difficult conversations with planners over what is ‘appropriate’ development for the Abbot’s Hall project. The hall itself is a former private dwelling which will be brought into public use for the first time. In the past townspeople would have walked up Crowe Street from the market place to be faced with closed wrought iron gates and a sign saying Private Property. From March of next year these gates will be flung open as the Hall is opened to the public.

Aside from being a new asset for the town it’s hoped that Abbot’s Hall will generate income in attracting new visitors and hires, thus enabling the museum to broaden its public programme and leaning and participation activities. MEAL does not receive the levels of public subsidy enjoyed by neighbouring museums and earned income is vital to its sustainability.

Our negotiations with the Planners centred around the positioning of a new car park. Despite Stowmarket having excellent road and rail links and despite the fact that the museum offers discounted admission for those using public transport or bicycles, the vast majority of visitors from outside the town come by car.

The museum has poor parking provision. Although it lies within a former farming estate the museum’s 80 acres are hemmed in by recent housing developments . To the south in what was open country, new housing was built in the late 1990s. Only by the view over Vera Waspe’s farm to the south west is there any impression of being part of a working countryside.

Our initial plans allowed for a 70 space permanent car park in the grounds of Abbot’s Hall. This was rejected by both English Heritage and the Planning Authority. We had only two other alternatives, one of which involved concreting over green space near our 14th century tithe barn (also a popular eating spot) or another which meant accessing the site through a quiet residential area. The first would have been unpopular with visitors the second with locals. Eventually we were granted a temporary planning permission for five years for a car park with a re-enforced grassed surface for around 30 spaces. The compromise, though not perfect, satisfies both museum, English Heritage and Planning Authority.

Under the government’s proposals the planning authority must give the presumption for sutainable development. This may have paved the way for the  museum to gain  permission for a larger car park or even greater access through the leafy Lockington Road. Working with planners under the existing guidelines, helped us get the balance right between the needs of the public realm, green space and the practicalities of sustaining an important and much loved cultural asset

The existing Planning rules are not perfect, no workable guidelines should run to 1000 pages. Moreover the intracacies of these vules allow some very strange decision. My local town of Saxmundham (population 3,500) is now to have two supermarkets. A Tescos being built next to an existing Waitrose as a site had been previously designated for retail.

However an effective planning regime is the only safeguard against urban sprawl, the corporate takeover of local retail and the preservation of green and freely accessible public space.

Abbot's Hall Barn, surely not appropriate for a car park

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