Blue-Sky Thinking Ideas
The Saxonvale Saturday Afternoon Project is a ‘blue sky thinking’ masterplanning exercise aiming to reflect Frome’s awareness and commitment to sustainability, environmental protection, community and well living. With non-professionals and professionals acting in a non-professional context because they love their town, the project’s aims are to promote green infrastructure and landscape led approaches for this major redevelopment site. No less than the economic, cultural and environmental future of the town for the next fifty years depends upon the right scheme being selected.
Saxonvale was purchased by Mendip District Council in July 2018 and in March 2019, Frome Town Council announced that it had sold the area of the site under its ownership to the District Council meaning that a full land amalgamation within the public sector has now taken place. Here is the vision for Saxonvale Mendip District Council as published on their web-site last year;
‘A generational opportunity to deliver an exemplar development on the banks of the River Frome. High quality design taking the historic grain of Frome as its starting point, and delivering a vibrant, mixed use neighbourhood, with flexible commercial/employment space, high quality public realm, and homes for all ages. The overarching principle of the vision is to create a vibrant, high quality and sustainable development’.
Mendip District Council web-site, ‘Future of Saxonvale’
Almost immediately, the District Council appointed Bristol-based Acorn Property Group to lead the planning application with Bath-based Nash Partnerships as main architects. A public consultation at the Silk Mill in January 2019 followed, when the town had an opportunity to offer its views over what priorities and aspirations they would like to see realised by the development. David Warburton MP for Frome & Somerton was one of over 400 persons who attended. He commented as reported in the Frome Standard that;
‘It is vital the voice of Frome is heard in this consultation, and that we see something that is truly landscape-led, with green infrastructure throughout. There’s a huge opportunity now for real contemporary architecture to lead the way with ideally, at least 100,000 square feet of commercial space for the engine of Frome’s enterprise, and giving it’s social, cultural and voluntary organisations the space they need. A covered market would be tremendous boost for Frome as well.’
The second consultation followed in February when Nash Partnerships unveiled their outline scheme. Despite strong calls during the first consultation for a landscape led approach designed to accord with Frome’s community & economic focus, we were presented with something very different; a scheme that turns it’s back upon principles of sustainable architecture and green infra-structure. Rather than being sensitive to the unique topography of the site, it is an imposed plan with poor choices in regard to heights and massing. Views across the lower areas are blocked off by high apartments that would be better positioned at the back or southern perimeter with little consideration being given to connective green corridors and natural pathways supportive of the ecology. We think Frome deserves better. A lot better.
Land development and urban architectural treatments in the UK are stuck in the dark ages. Constantly in the media we see reports signalling ecosystem collapse. Pollinating insects are under threat and issues surrounding climate change, mitigating environmental impacts from pollutants, congestion and carbon emissions are at the top of the political agenda. Frome Town Council was one of the first in Somerset to declare a climate emergency. Somerset County Council followed suit and Mendip District Council has also recently voted in favour with a motion put forward by Shane Collins of the Green Party and seconded by Ros Wyke of the Lib Dems.
So now over to us. Saxonvale offers an opportunity to change the way large scale masterplanning is approached yet none of the main stakeholders other than the Silk Mill have called for green infrastructure choices to take centerstage. Water courses and run-offs are hidden underground and exclusive of the riverside park, there are no proposals for communal gardens, allotments, linked green corridors and structural plantings. All the constraints of the site including contamination could in fact be met by green infrastructure solutions being far more cost effective than conventional options.
The developers and Nash Partnerships have been included in the Saxonvale Saturday Afternoon Project’s main objectives since early on in the consultation round but have so far declined to engage seriously with these ideas. Without trying to impede a much-needed application from being brought forward, it is important to influence these plans now by showcasing green infrastructure outcomes and benefits. Saxonvale should be promoted as a genuine mixed-use site that is fit for purpose and appropriate to Frome’s creative, cultural and entrepreneurial profile including and sympathetic to live-work, commercial modular and workspace opportunities.
In summary, new development scenarios affecting towns and local communities across the UK need to switch focus to highlight well-being and well-living. Frome prides itself on being a town that is different and the future of this major site should support that, sending a message about what makes Frome a unique and special place to live.