28 December 2006

No flats - we're detatched

If you look at 'historic' Somerton, ie the oldest parts of the town, you find that, contrary to contemporary thinking and fashion, the buildings in old Somerton were generally terraced. A map of Somerton in the middle 1800s shows Broad St and West St built up of terraced houses and the only detached buildings being those with specific purposes, for example farm houses, churches and property for the clergy. In fact, much of Somerton's conservation area is comprised of terraced housing.

Today the demand in the housing market is for detached housing and Somerton is as good an example of this as any but, in Somerton's case, this runs completely contrary to the historic grain of the townscape. Its also useful to consider the wider impact of detached housing.

Detached housing creates urban sprawl in that the population density is low. Detached housing is costlier because it uses more land and building materials as each unit has a minimum of 4 elevations (rather than two or three with terraced housing). Most importantly, detached housing is the least energy efficient housing structure with the maximum external surface per housing unit. And of the 'detached' class of housing, the bungalow is the least energy efficient of all structures.

There is also an undeniable prejudice, outside major metropolitan areas against the construction of flats and with regard to this prejudice, Somerton subscribes fully. Flats are opposed for a variety of reasons: they aren't "in keeping"; they lower the tone; they attract undesireables. Yet, in today's world of increasing energy costs and rising housing costs, flats offer major advantages.

The construction of blocks of flats consumes less building materials in construction, for example there is only one roof and there may be 3 or 4 units below that one roof. Flats are more energy efficient as they have 2 or at most 3 exposed external surfaces therefore lose less heat to the outside world. The sharing of key elements, roof, foundations, services etc means that the unit cost is less as there are serious 'savings of scale' in construction.

For all of these reasons, flats offer the opportunity to build cheaper, more energy efficient housing which, in the rural setting, would address two key areas of demand - first time buyers and the elderly. For both these communities, flats offer lower cost of occupation yet flats are treated with suspicion in places like Somerton where they could help retain younger members of the community by offering cheaper residential options.

So why is there such a prejudice against the construction of flats? I guess that the estate agents hold the key in that they reflect the prejudices of property owners. Flats, whatever their undeniable benefits, are seen as undesirable. Detached housing, ignoring its increased construction costs, inefficiencies and appetite for land, is what sells. Sad really.

Till next time.


15 December 2006

Golf carts and ASBOs

Earlier today I was walking through the Brunel Centre and I saw something quite remarkable - a young guy selling 'The Big Issue'. Now, having lived in London for 30 years I'm pretty used to people selling that mag and, much of the time, I pass by with a polite "No thank you" and so it was this time. I headed on to the supermarket, got my lunch and, on the way back, experienced a change of heart. I decided to buy a copy of TBI even although I probably won't read it. So why, you might ask, did I change my mind? Well, the truth was that it was so enjoyable to see someone who was probably in their 20s doing something that was definitely 'out of the ordinary' for Somerton that I felt I should encourage him.

Now that probably isn't the done thing in Somerton. After all, Somerton is such a refined place that some youngish guy, with a mouth full of gold fillings, selling some magazine to do with homeless people will obviously lower the tone of the place. Or at least that might be the reaction of some people. But seeing this guy brought me back to my earlier musing on the subject of Somerton's covert ageism - Somerton's cultural dislike of the younger generation. This guy represented something of that younger generation and immediately got my vote.

Then a casual conversation about young vs old threw up another interesting contradiction in the way that Somerton manages its population. I was standing outside the bank and one of those electric golf carts came thundering by, on the pavement, and everyone had to step back to let this old hooligan get past. Compare that experience to the youngsters who sometimes gather in the Square at night in their cars for a bit of casual chat. Evidently they get moved along and are encouraged to move on because an ASBO might be the product of a refusal. Now I happen to think that those youngsters in their cars are behaving better than some of the geriatric drivers of these golf carts who seem to think that everyone should get out of their way. At least the youngsters with their cars have passed some sort of driving test.

Considering this contradiction only seems to further highlight Somerton's prejudice against the younger generation. I doubt that anyone hereabouts would consider an ASBO for the over 70s. Such an idea would be unthinkable. But why not? The standard of some golf cart driving hereabouts is nothing short of appalling. If anyone drove a car in the same way, they'd be locked up. But instead it seems that it is the younger generation that are targeted. Maybe young people have to be discouraged from doing anything in Somerton because nothing must disturb the deathly hush that suffocates the place?

Till next time.


6 December 2006

Somerton and the Great War

Somerton feels like it might have done in the aftermath of the Great War, WW1 that is. There seems to be something unbalanced about the town's population, lots of older people and some children but not too many in between. And this strikes me as being rather odd. Its almost as if the Pied Piper has visited the town and spirited away all the youngsters because, mostly, they are nowhere to be seen.

When I walk the dogs at night, the town is, mostly, silent as the grave and whilst that is a pleasant experience in the countryside, in an urban setting it feels like the aftermath of a biological attack. As if, were I to peek in any window, I might see bodies sprawled on floors or slumped across tables, copies of the Daily Telegraph clutched in a deathly grip.

Somerton does strike me as being somewhere for the elderly and, to a greater degree, the Town Council echo that observation in their age profile. So maybe its no wonder that there is nothing for youngsters in the town. Certainly, in the evening, Somerton is a 'yoof free zone' and, to this casual observer, it feels spooky, unnatural.

If you look around the town its hard to see anything obvious that caters for a younger generation. In the evening there is little or nothing between the take-away establishments and the pubs - a pretty poor range of choices. So why should this be? Does Somerton have something against the younger generation?

Maybe it does and maybe this grievance is illustrated by the construction of the skate-park out on the edge of town. Some time ago, I did see some kids skateboarding in Cox's yard and that struck me as 'normal', but I haven't seen them or heard them for a while. Skateboarding in the centre of town feels like a safer bet than way out on the edge. Night-time youthful chatter at the Market Cross might be indication of a teenage generation but maybe they are all packed off to bed by 9pm because it isn't something I hear often.

So maybe Somerton is 'ageist'. Maybe Somerton is becoming a ghetto for the oldies. Or maybe it is already and I've just woken up to the fact.

Till next time.


4 December 2006

Traffic mismanagement?

Something that has bothered me for years about Somerton is the complete absence of any traffic management strategy for West Street. By any judgement, West Street is narrow, especially the stretch between the junction with Pester's Lane and the Pedestrian Crossing near the Market Square. Depending on their skill levels, car drivers can find that part a bit of a jousting match and if you meet a bus or truck then its time to take to the pavement. This situation isn't good for anyone - road users, pedestrians or the small number of businesses that still manage to survive on West Street.

But wait, the Draft Plan of 1977 has something to say about this situation. That Plan recognised the problems and stated quite clearly that once the highway improvements to Behind Berry were completed, a traffic management strategy could be implemented. Well, as far as I know, the Behind Berry works (road widening, roundabouts etc) were completed years ago so why isn't there a traffic management strategy and why isn't it in place? Maybe because the Town Council don't see it as a priority or maybe they don't drive? Whatever the reason, its quite obvious that something needs to be done and action is long overdue.

So what sort of traffic strategy could be implemented? Well, the obvious problem is the width of West Street and that is something that can't change - the building lines are too close to the highway and the pavements are already extremely narrow in places. So removing the conflict between two directions of traffic seems to be the obvious resolution which means making at least part of West Street 'one way'. And therein lies the rub - inevitably someone will be slightly inconvenienced by such a change and 'change', as I am coming to realise, is something to which Somerton is allergic.

But, that challenge notwithstanding, lets imagine what a management plan might look like. Lets look at the obvious option and that is to make the traffic flow clockwise from Broad Street to West Street and back along Behind Berry. Its an obvious option but it means that heavier traffic seeking a through route is forced along West Street which isn't ideal. So, how about Behind Berry staying two way as the best 'through route' avoiding the narrow centre and making Broad St and West St one way? Such a change would make life far better for pedestrians which would, in turn, probably make life better for business on West St. There would be a degree of inconvenience for some drivers but I doubt it would add much more than seconds to any journey time, certainly less than the time that is lost whilst drivers have to mount the pavement to let the local bus service through.

So what's stopping action in this quite important aspect of Somerton's life? I don't know. All the work that was intended to make a traffic management plan possible was completed years ago and yet West Street remains the challenge that it has always been. By comparison, when its time to put up the Christmas decorations, the centre of Somerton becomes a sea of yellow cones, high-visibility jackets and local councillors overseeing the work. Yet the decorations last for a month and the traffic problems are permanent.

Another example of priority mismanagement?

Till next time.


1 December 2006

1977's vision of the future.

Somerton's 1977 Draft Town Plan continues to be a very interesting document which contains, buried within its pages, some very interesting observations. One of these was specifically regarding the community which could be addressed by a new village hall.

In 1977 comment was passed upon the lack of a big enough community facility and also the lack of an indoor sports facility. Now, the truth is that I'm not a sports person so I don't know if the sports need has been addressed in the last 3 decades but I suspect it has not so the observations from 1977 continue to have broad relevance today. And this opens up new avenues for discussion with regard to the proposed village hall.

A few weeks ago I was in Lytham St Annes and I visited a very fine building, the Lowther Pavilion. By the look of it, it must have been built in the last 20 odd years and its specification is remarkable. Apart from having a restaurant which seats 60 it also boasts a full stage with orchestra pit, dressing rooms, flexible seating in the auditorium area which also doubles as an indoor sports arena along with all the usual PA and lighting systems. In fact, the Lowther Pavilion is an interesting template, possibly on a slightly larger scale, for what could be created in Somerton.

The 1977 Draft Plan supported the idea for a multipurpose structure to address both sports and community needs and today it makes just as much, if not more sense. Its important to make the money work for the whole of the community and such a multipurpose structure would, I am certain, be able to attract additional funding (Sport England?).

The Town Council's current proposed route - to take something around £400k and build a facility limited by that budget - is shortsighted and misses the wider opportunity. But I doubt that concerns the Town Council because I believe that they are less interested in building a community facility for Somerton and far more interested in building a monument to themselves. And £400k can build a pretty spiffy monument don't you think?

Till next time.