Poundbury is home
Love it or loathe it, Poundbury is here to stay. Jim Potts gives his verdict on what it is like to live there.
Published in January ’11
I have always been open-minded about Poundbury. I liked the fact that it was part of Dorchester – I could just as happily have lived in the centre of Dorchester itself – and I have always loved the area and its links with Barnes and Hardy. Having spent years overseas, we were looking for a new house in the UK that was easy to maintain, with adequate storage and having a small garden. A house that we could also lock up and leave in order to visit children or friends overseas; somewhere clean, attractive and unpolluted, with good facilities – a railway station, a hospital, satisfactory shops, a library – good countryside walking, and relatively easy access to the sea.
We weren’t ideologically set on Poundbury, although we had watched its development from the beginning, often travelling through it en route from London to Bridport and West Bay. I admired many of the houses and liked the look of Brownsword Hall and of the Poet Laureate pub. I appreciated the use of stone, the architectural variety and use of detail. I am not alone: Weymouth College’s Dorset Construction & Training Centre in Poundbury hosts all of the college’s stone masonry provision, including the degree course in Applied Architectural Stonework & Conservation.
I have read the whinging, negative articles on websites and in the press, and have become conscious of unexpectedly strong feelings against the development, along the lines of: ‘them and us’, ‘haves and have-nots’, ‘twee’, ‘retro’, ‘fake’, ‘toy town’, ‘theme park’, ‘ stage set’, ‘escapist phantasy’, ‘pretentious kitsch’, ‘bland and banal’, ‘more like a model village than a real one’ and so on. Some comments came from pieces of intelligently-argued architectural criticism, others simply conveyed blind prejudice and snide hostility towards ‘royal ego-trips’, to Prince Charles, and to his attitudes concerning modernist architecture and his preference for the vernacular and neo-classical/Georgian.
Personally, I’m not preoccupied with the town planning theories of New Urbanists concerning integrated and mixed land-use, the reduced reliance on cars, the pedestrian-friendly and ‘walkability’ principles, the percentages of intermixed social and affordable housing or ideas about the intermixing of factories, shops and offices. I am extremely interested in the development of Queen Mother Square, Poundbury’s central court, which lies within our immediate neighbourhood, and will enable us to enjoy close, pedestrian access to a John Lewis Food Store and other facilities like the planned pannier market, which will incorporate the ironwork from Jubilee Hall, Weymouth. Will our square really resemble a smaller version of Prague’s Wenceslas Square, as Simon Conibear, Poundbury’s Development Manager, often says? Having lived in Prague for three years, I would be happy if that were to be the case. I am very interested in distinctive and high quality architecture, even if it is derivative, rather than innovative, in the varied designs of buildings and the quality of the materials used, even if this is not the prime concern of the Duchy.
Since buying a house here, what do I like and dislike so far? I like the cleanliness, tidiness, lack of rubbish; the sense of being in harmony with nature; a feeling of being ‘at home’ – close to my Wessex roots – yet in an interesting and constantly-evolving development founded on a vision; evidence of respect for traditional skills, and the environment; a sense of security. I like the walks: to Maiden Castle, Poundbury Camp and further afield; the Garden Centre, its gallery and Olives et al; the Poet Laureate; the nearby villages and churches; the Dorchester shops; the library and museum; the local societies. Anybody with archaeological, literary and historical interests has a lot to keep him or her busy and to satisfy their curiosity. I like the design principles and lettering guidelines, the absence from view of TV aerials, washing lines, plastic awnings, meter boxes and refuse bins. I have no problems with the rules and regulations, covenants, stipulations and controls; they can’t prevent occasional acts of vandalism, such as thefts of lead, damaged stone-work or graffiti. It is fair to say that I like the more urban feeling of Phase 2 – compared with the older, village-like Phase 1, which is already showing some signs of wear and tear on its woodwork and stains on the rendered walls, some of which have recently been repainted. My dislikes? I’m disappointed that there are no cycle paths – a fundamental mistake – that there are few concessions to the disabled, and that there is too much loose gravel on the pavements and dog mess in the Great Field. I would also be happier if a few more footbridges could be constructed to cross over busy roads.
There is an over-arching masterplan, at least on environmental matters, as Simon Conibear, Poundbury Development Manager for the Duchy of Cornwall, says: ‘How we live our lives is as important to achieving energy efficiency as how we insulate our properties and what we do with the environment around us. Proximity to the shops and work place is also important. Sustainability is achieved by the use of natural materials, where possible. An anaerobic digester will compensate for energy consumed at Poundbury, so making it effectively carbon neutral.’ As well as this anaerobic digestion plant to produce methane (biogas from food-waste, manure and corn) to generate electricity and heat, there are plans for electric vehicles and recharging points. With such forethought on these matters, though, in such a windy a hilltop location, why did the planners not come up with better street designs to break the force of strong winds, and what provision has been made for the anticipated demographic change and the need for more secondary school places?
We are residents of Phase 2: there are 450 more houses to be built in this phase, which could take four to five years – or more. There may be a master plan, but there has been a recession and much depends on the market. Phases 3 and 4 will follow, from 2014/2015 (a further 1200 dwellings, subject to market demand) and building will continue at least until 2025, at the rate of around 100 new dwellings per year. So we have to face 15-20 years of building, but building won’t start at the end of our street at least until 2018 (it will be the last area to be built), so we will be able to enjoy the view of open fields for a lot longer, I hope. The Duchy admits that it has to be astute and ‘utterly commercial’, especially if it has to create an eventual demand for 2250 houses. There are currently around 2000 people living in Poundbury. There will eventually be 4000 or more.
Already, though, there is a real sense of community here, with many groups and organisations having formed within Poundbury. Furthermore, the 87 businesses within the development have aggregated to form ‘Discover Poundbury’ (www.discoverpoundbury.co.uk) to help visitors to find what they need. It is fair to say that I am proud to be a resident of Poundbury; my relatively short experience of living here has convinced me that most of the criticisms are not only unfair, but unfounded. I lament the polarised attitudes: Poundbury residents’ pride of place and accompanying fears of anti-social behaviour, Dorchester and Old Poundbury’s resentment of the new Poundbury. ‘Outsiders’ may still perceive the boundary bollards and fences as intended to keep ‘unsuitable people’ out, even if the truth is somewhat different – I am told it was the people living on neighbouring streets outside the Poundbury development who wanted to prevent cars taking short-cuts. Local critics from older parts of Dorchester might pause to reflect just how many new jobs and how much new business and economic activity have been brought to the town as a result of Poundbury’s existence. It is not ‘just another’ borough of Dorchester, but neither is it ‘a blot on the Dorset landscape’, as a tactless guest once said. They are of course entitled to their view, just as Prince Charles is entitled to his. In A Vision of Britain in 1989, addressing the problem facing the southern England, Prince Charles wrote: ‘How to build in our countryside without spoiling it…vision and boldness are needed if we are to produce something of real beauty in the English countryside.’ On the whole I think he and his team have succeeded.