Woolston: Comprehensive Destruction?

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Woolston High Street is probably not somewhere most students have been.

Its attractions are limited to a few faded shop fronts, a dirty takeaway and the closed down shell of a Woolworths- the unfortunate symbol of post credit crunch Britain. But Woolston, if you ever do decide to spend an afternoon on buses winding through Itchen Valley’s council estates to get there, has a story to tell. Its shipyards once built the industrial fleet that carried goods around the British Empire for the first half of the 20th Century. The Spitfire seaplanes that defended Britain from invasion in the Second World War were also built in Woolston, leading to the area being targeted by a devastating bombing campaign from the Luftwaffe.

That story, however, ended decades ago. The shipbuilders closed down and moved to cheaper sites in different areas of the country, leaving a legacy of unemployment, and the vast industrial wastelands which dominate the area.

But suddenly, things are about to change. A disused ship yard will be transformed into an exceptionally high density housing complex, complete with a supermarket, by one of the most ambitious development projects the city has ever seen. High rises with over 1,640 dwellings will be erected over the coming years.

This will cause a huge influx of people, meaning much more traffic on the roads, and huge competition for parking. Woolston, with effectively only two roads going in and out, would struggle to sustain such a change.

In addition to this, Woolston’s quiet, village like community will be at odds with the new occupants of the luxury high rises that are aimed primarily at non-permanent residents. Only 10% of the homes planned are suitable for family dwellings. Neighbouring property prices will rise, local facilities will struggle to support the additional residents, and local businesses, already on their knees, risk being killed off by the introduction of a supermarket.

Jane Foster, secretary for Save Woolston, a local group opposed to the plans, told the Wessex Scene, “we welcome development in Woolston, of course we can see that it’s necessary. But they haven’t taken the needs of the local people into account. The waterfront could conceivably be opened up as a green space, a picnic area with lower density housing, family homes and market stalls to support local business.”

Attractive as these ideas may seem, there is one fundamental problem with them. They won’t make as much money as the current plans. The plans are being administered by the South East England Development Agency, a government QUANGO (a private business with devolved powers from Westminster). They expect to make upwards of £15 million from the development of the site. And in today’s world, the needs of a local community mean very little when in conflict with the needs to big business to make lots of money very quickly and very unsustainably.

When the plans were released local people organised a campaign and appealed against them. They prepared a detailed criticism of the plans, gained the most complaints against a proposed development ever seen in this country and secured the support of local MPs. Despite this, the council ignored them, granted planning permission and building work began over Easter.

“They had no regard for our comments,” Foster told us, “they just walked into the meeting and dictated what was going to happen.”

While to people outside the situation the concerns may seem trivial, they will have a deep, lasting effect on any existing local community in Woolston. Over the last few decades there has been a growing demand among the young middle classes to live in hip urban areas. In response to this high rise, luxury flats have sprung up in cities up and down the country. But as they do, house prices soar, real estate value and rent start to rise. And the locals who have endured the years of unemployment and dilapidation, along with the inevitable crime that goes with it, can no longer afford to live there. So they move out, the local pubs close, local businesses lose their custom, and in come Waitrose and Morrisons to pick up the pieces.

This is what young engineers and town planners should learn, if you take on the responsibility of developing an area you should do it with the needs of locals in mind, not the needs of profit. However it seems a few students at this University have skipped those lectures. Only a couple of months ago, a group of engineering students proudly published designs in the Daily Echo to regenerate the banks of the River Itchen. While they talked up the ability of their ideas to improve business and pull in investors, the thing that struck me hardest about the article was one line at the bottom of the page; “these plans would involve the relocation of several residential properties from the Golden Grove Estate.”

I’m not sure if the families whose children would have to move schools, who would have to move away from their friends and possibly relatives to make way for the plans would agree that a walkway between above bar street and the banks of the Itchen was quite so beneficial for the city. But then I’m not an architect.

Standing on Woolston High Street, on a windy, wet day in March opposite a closed down shop, waiting for the only bus out that will be here in an hour, a thought strikes me. This area looks like a time warp back to the seventies, it has been completely ignored by the government, the council, or anyone else who could have helped them when the ship builders left. At any time over the last few years they could have improved the roads in and out, built and developed parks and swimming pools or invested money in struggling local business. But they didn’t. Until the potential arose to make huge profit, they ignored it as insignificant, and now, for the people of Woolston at least, things look set to get a whole lot worse.

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