Higham Ferrers: a case study about local character and design

Background

BoardHigham Ferrers is a market town in the Nene Valley in East Northamptonshire, where it forms a single urban area with Rushden which lies immediately to the south. The Neighbourhood Plan area corresponds to existing parish boundaries. The Neighbourhood Plan is being progressed by Higham Ferrers Town Council, who see it as a valuable tool in allowing local people to influence how Higham Ferrers is going to develop over the next 20 years.

The overarching aim of the plan is to create a sustainable, inclusive, vibrant, and thriving community, formed around an attractive town centre which invites high quality development. Central to achieving this vision is the need to ensure that new development is of high quality design and complimentary to the existing character of the town.

Why was design and character an important issue?

Higham Ferrers benefits from a distinctive and heritage-rich townscape, which is deeply valued by local residents, and represents one of the town’s key assets. The Town Council saw the protection and enhancement of this distinctive townscape character as crucial to ensuring the continued prosperity and attractiveness of the town. Concerns were raised about more recent developments which have failed to consider and respect the existing town character, and subsequently diluted and damaged the area’s special character.

How can a Neighbourhood Plan influence design and character?

To ensure that future development carefully considered and responded to the town’s unique character, the Town Council explored ways in which their emerging Neighbourhood Plan could positively influence the design of new development. This led them to decide that a design policy, requiring new development to respect and respond positively to the town’s existing character, was the best approach to this issue.

The Town Council identified that critical to making any such policy effective was the need to have some formal documentation outlining precisely what the character of an area is. Such documents are commonly referred to as Character Assessments or Character Appraisals.

A community-prepared Character Assessment

Character Assessments are often prepared by planning authorities or private consultants. However, such documents can be prepared by local communities with no planning or design experience – indeed, in many regards local residents are best placed to produce such documents as they have an intricate knowledge of their locally, and understand precisely what makes it special and unique.

How they did it

On this basis, the Higham Ferrers Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group decided to undertake their own Character Assessment for Higham Ferrers. The starting point for this exercise was a workshop run by Planning Aid England, which was designed to give members of the Steering Group an understanding what exactly character is, and how to record and communicate local character this within a Character Assessment.

MapThis workshop was broken into three parts:

1. A presentation by Planning Aid England on the various elements that combine to shape a particular locality’s character, using images to prompt discussion (such as buildings, open spaces, routes, natural features),

2. A round-table exercise amongst the group to identify different character areas within the settlement, which were then plotted on a map (the group managed to identify a total of 5 different character areas),

3. A practical exercise, where the Steering Group and Planning Aid England advisors walked around one of the identified character areas and discussed and recorded the key features which helped shape that particular area’s character.

The Steering Group used a character pro forma to help them categorise and record different elements of the local character during the above walk-around. This pro forma included sections where the group could note details on the following:

  • Layout (how buildings are generally arranged in relation to the local road network, gardens, and other spaces in between)
  • Topography (flat, valley, plateau, hill, steep etc)
  • Spaces (playing fields, market squares, allotments, graveyards etc)
  • Roads, streets and routes (vehicular routes, pedestrian footpaths, cyclist lanes, shared-surfaces etc)
  • Green and natural features (trees, hedgerows, rivers, streams, ponds etc)
  • Landmarks (distinct buildings, monuments / statues, mature and prominent trees etc)
  • Buildings and details (building heights, materials, key architectural features, roof types, construction-area etc)
  • Streetscape features (bus shelters, benches, boundary treatments, signage etc)
  • Land Uses (residential, retail, commercial, industrial, leisure, mixed-use etc)
  • Views (should be taken from places that are publicly accessible and are well-used and regularly frequented by the local community, and should contain significant/important buildings or landscapes that help to define and enhance the village character).

Producing the Character Assessment

Higham_FerrersIn the weeks following the workshop, the steering group members walked around each identified character area, and using the pro forma, recorded the key features and elements that make that particular part of the town special and distinctive. During this exercise they also took numerous photographs of these areas for inclusion in the Character Assessment document.

Using the information contained within the completed pro formas, along with photographs and relevant information sourced via desktop research (local history publications, listed building information, council evidence documents), the Steering Group set about producing a formalised Character Assessment.

To help the group organise the content of their Character Assessment, Planning Aid England provided a draft structure for the document, which was as follows:

Introduction

a. Purpose of Character Assessment (to understand and record the important and distinct features of the town which combine to create its unique character)
b. Approach to Character Assessment work (identification of broad Character Areas / on-site field work using pro forma and taking photographs / Desk-based research on heritage, etc)

Historical development of town (brief overview to provide some background and context - could be supported by historic maps / photographs).

Map of Character Areas

Individual assessment of each character area, each including:

a. Zoomed in map of particular Character Area
b. Overview of any designations (e.g. Conservation Area / perhaps list of Listed Buildings)
c. Summary of character (utilise the info collected on the pro forma to produce an overview of the area’s character).  Use photos to illustrate key features referred to within text.
d. Positive features / Special qualities
e. Negative / detracting features

Using the above structure and guidance provided at the character workshop, the Steering Group then proceeded to draft their own Character Assessment for Higham Ferrers.

In addition to completing the sections listed above, the Steering Group also included two additional sections:

1.    A gallery of photos showing common features seen on buildings and within the public realm of Higham Ferrers. Such features included chimneys, decorative brickwork, window types, street furniture, types of walls, fences and hedges, stone sills and lintels, avenues of trees, railings and raised footpaths; and

2.    A gallery of photos showing a selection of local buildings and other townscape features which local residents felt reflected the character of Higham Ferrers. Images included in this gallery were agreed on at a number of workshops where members of the local community were given the opportunity to identify buildings and features they particularly liked.

Using the Character Assessment

front_coverThe group are progressing a design policy which requires new development proposals to consider, respect and respond positively to the existing character of the town in relation to:

  • building heights, layout, spacing materials;
  • boundary treatments;
  • open space, trees and natural features; and
  • important views and landmarks.

This policy cross refers to the complete Character Assessment, and requires consideration of the important characteristics outlined in this document. For ease of use, the Character Assessment will be included within the Neighbourhood Plan as an appendix.

Top tips

  • Don’t just focus on buildings and their appearance within the Character Assessment – open spaces, natural features, streets, pathways, street furniture and boundary treatments are just a number of other elements which can contribute to the character of an area. Character is about much more than architecture and building types.
  • Take plenty of photos when on site, and use these generously within the Character Assessment – it is much easier to include of an image of a particular building, space or feature than try to describe it at length within the text.
  • Keep the language clear, concise and accurate. The Character Assessment should provide a factual description of the Neighbourhood Plan area, with some qualitative commentary on the most valued and important characteristics.
  • Use online maps, such as Bing or Google maps, to help both define the boundaries of each Character Area and inform the character area summary (it is particularly useful in understanding the layout of an area and checking on features that may have been missed on the initial site walkaround).
  • If you’re interested in doing a walkaround in your area, think about who you could get involved: local people interested in architecture, design and local history are likely to have good appreciation or character issues and may be keen to participate.
  • Utilise existing sources of information including local planning policy guidance, listed building details, and books on local history and evolution of the settlement.

Many thanks to the Higham Ferrers Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group for their help with this case study. These case studies are produced by Planning Aid England as part of the Supporting Communities in Neighbourhood Planning programme, funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government and delivered by a consortium led by Locality. 

Photo credits

© All photos are copyright Higham Ferrers Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group