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Darlington West Park

Building large-scale housing development on contaminated wasteland

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This case study is part of Place Spotlight, which supports local areas in successful place making by taking each of the each of the eight components of great places and provides criteria for good, great and exemplary performance. Darlington West Park demonstrates what place making means in practice and provides an exemplary example of performance under the Housing component.

Find out more about Place Spotlight and how it can help you make great places.

Background

Darlington Council was committed to regenerating the town and its surroundings to make it attractive to residents and investors. It set about reclaiming and developing formerly industrial land, which was lying unused. This included a large contaminated site on a former chemical works. With careful negotiation, big-vision thinking and strategic partnerships, West Park was built. It included a large-scale housing project, public buildings and Darlington’s first new park in a century.

Since the mid-1970s Darlington Council had set about reclaiming derelict land. At the heart of its regeneration strategy was the impetus to make the locality attractive to investors as well as residents.

One site, a former chemical works, provided a golden opportunity to pursue these aims. It had an abundance of space for development to take place, and the council realised the site could be a perfect fit for its ‘Gateway Framework’ – the renewal plan to deliver investment and employment to the area.

Unfortunately, the land was lying useless. It had been a dumping ground for asbestos-contaminated, calcium carbonate, so it was a priority issue to make it safe and useable. But with no derelict land grant available, any reclamation plans would have to attract development financing to get them off the ground. That’s where housing developer Bussey & Armstrong came in. It provided the will and ambition for the project to be realised.

The development plan the company devised, however, required more land than was available. If the project was to be viable, it needed to build on adjoining farmland, which was outside of statutory local plan development limits. There was a strong possibility that the Government Office for the North East (GONE) might not give approval for expanding the site to build on undeveloped land. However, the council’s priority was to bring the site back into use, and so felt the plan was worth pursuing in spite of these potential barriers.

Working together, developers Bussey & Armstrong and the council assessed how the site of the former Darchem chemical works could best be put to use.

The development of West Park demonstrates exemplary practice in housing and the built environment, and links to a number of the other elements of great places:

Governance – bringing together a wide range of public and private partners to develop and deliver a shared strategy to regenerate an area in need of redevelopment
Economy – levering in investment into West Park and creating opportunities for new businesses and local enterprises to grow
Services – new health services and a new school have been built into the development from the start
Social and cultural – developing an arts strategy to take advantage of the area’s cultural heritage and building public art into the new environment
Environmental – reclaiming and improving green space and promoting local biodiversity, including a reserve for protected species
Working together, developers Bussey & Armstrong and the council assessed how the site of the former Darchem chemical works could best be put to use.

Project

One of the key objectives was to replace the industrial dereliction with housing, health, recreation and community facilities. This would make it a major component of Darlington’s strategy to regenerate the area. The project was born as a concerted effort to make Darlington an attractive place to live and work.

The partners imagined a mixed-use development where various communities would intersect. The site offered the potential to provide a green space too – the first new park to be built in the town for 100 years. Bussey & Armstrong’s vision included binding the development together, in the shape of an arts project, which would ‘animate’ the site and reflect the history and heritage of Darlington. To realise these goals the developers would need to develop on some adjoining farmland for the project. But building on greenfield land posed difficulties in securing government approval.

Darlington Council was instrumental in building the case for development and holding discussions with GONE to outline how it would benefit the community – offering open space as well as housing, reclaiming land that was out of use and transforming it to help nurture a sustainable community. The council helped navigate the project through the financial obstacles and planning policy. The argument for needing the greenfield land for the development was based around the bigger picture of reclamation.

Specifically, the council identified and communicated to the government that:

The project would meet the targets for development on previously developed land
A balance between housing and open space would be preserved
Reclaimed green space would enhance biodiversity

The project would contribute to socio-economic as well as environmental sustainability
Bussey & Armstrong provided detailed economic viability analysis to support the case for embracing the land beyond the reclamation site for the project as well as leading the project and establishing its vision.

In addition to the developers and the council, County Durham and Darlington NHS Trust also played an important role in realising the development. A new mental health hospital had been planned for some time for the area and needed a location. The council brokered a happy marriage between the Trust and Bussey & Armstrong, and the hospital became a welcome addition to the whole project.

Arts Council England, Arts Council North East and New Writing North also became involved. They offered their help with the poetry commission and arts strategy, although it was initiated and funded by the developers. Public art was built into every aspect of this development. Poet WN Herbert, sculptor David Paton, and blacksmith Brian Russell collaborated to create sculptures exploring the ecology of the site and the town’s history inspired by Darlington’s Quaker legacy.

The success of the partnership has been characterised by clear communication and being flexible and responsive to opportunities.

The timescale for the project reaches into 2015. It started in 1999 with Tony Cooper (of Bussey & Armstrong) and John Buxton, the council’s director of development, assessing the site, and began in earnest in 2002 as a 10-year building project incorporating 800 new homes, a £20m hospital, a new £3m primary school and various community facilities.

The parkland, populated with sculptures and providing a habitat for rare species of birds and butterflies, was completed in 2003 and opened in June 2005, once the flora and fauna had had sufficient time to develop.

The project also adopted what was at first seen as a controversial decision. It introduced a West Park annual ‘levy’ of £50 for new residents and £1,000 new businesses. This would provide an income for the park that could be spent on maintenance, events and community projects.

Although the new residents and businesses were made aware of the levy from the start, there was a certain amount of opposition when it was actually introduced. This was based on the delayed opening of the park, the fact that existing residents were not expected to contribute and the perception that the council should pay for services like grass cutting and maintenance.

However when residents/businesses were informed of the benefits that would accrue once the park did open, and that the £50,000 a year would guarantee a far higher level of maintenance (including a full-time park ranger) than the council could support, opinion changed. The levy now binds the community together, gives them a stake in the park and makes them care more about their local area.

Impact

West Park is a successful award-winning development that incorporates housing, a new hospital and school, and art and sculpture in green spaces where nature can thrive. It is a lasting legacy to the quality of life in the town.

The project has won several awards including a RICS Gold Award for Regeneration and Regional Renaissance (2004) and a Sustainable Communities Award (2006) in the Constructing a Sustainable Community category, organised by the Local Government Association (LGA).

Over a 10-year period the West Park project is delivering or has delivered:

800 new homes
A new primary school
A mental health hospital
A village centre comprising shops, cafes and pubs and a site for a doctors’ surgery
The first new park in the area for a century, which provides a habitat for three rare species – the water vole, the dingy skipper butterfly and the little ringed plover bird
Naturally all the residents benefit from the new housing and open space surrounding it and the educational, health and recreational facilities have a wider social benefit beyond the immediate community. The ‘controversial’ levy has already helped to fund a kids play area (costing £100,000, with £75,000 coming from council, and £25,000 funded by the levy) and a full-time park ranger.

The scheme has been promoted to other authorities around the UK at events run by organisations such as the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment.

No formal evaluation has been carried out. But there are informal validations of the project’s success. Speaking in The Times newspaper one resident said, “We lived in a modern house in Darlington before, but we felt a bit hemmed in. Here, wherever you look you can see green space. I spend part of the week working at home, and when I’m in need of a bit of inspiration I just stick my head out of the window and look at the green. It’s not a park you go and sit in, it’s a park you meander around in. It feels like the countryside, yet we’re only two miles from the centre of Darlington.”

David Lyonette, Darlington Council’s Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Planning, said of the development: “I am delighted at the success of the West Park project…It demonstrates exactly what can be done when organisations work in partnership and I hope it continues to thrive.”

Lessons Learned

Personal vision and strong leadership. The approach taken by Bussey & Armstrong, who were the driving force behind the plan, was instrumental in delivering the project. The strong personal vision of director Tony Cooper and desire to build a legacy for his hometown informed some key decisions and marks it out from many other projects.

Long-term thinking. This was evident in the attention given to the quality of design, sustainability and legacy of the project

The benefits of working in partnership. The informal partnerships Bussey & Armstrong formed with the council, Darlington NHS Trust, County Durham, the Arts Council and others opened doors and networks of information sharing and support that would otherwise have remained closed.

A willingness to take risks. The project would never have got underway without Bussey & Armstrong’s and the council’s willingness to pursue the aim of such a large-scale development and address the planning obstacles head on

The importance of expert skills. The early stages of the project began by assessing the requirements to fully reclaim used land and make it an environmental, social and economic benefit once again. This required skilled analysis, lateral thinking to breakthrough the perceived barriers, and partner communication to achieve the goals.

The centrality of the arts. Setting an arts project at the heart of the development helped bind the community (both the users and the developers) together in an inclusive vision. The new park, nature reserve and hub of social benefits (including the hospital, housing and school) were joined together by public art and poetry that flowed from one building and space to the next. It sparked the imagination of all involved and bound them to the history as well as the future of the site.

Flexibility. Whilst there was strong project management – and close partnership working between the council and developers Bussey & Armstrong – it is worth noting that additional partnerships grew with the project. An informal alliance held together by shared objectives, rather than formal agreements, emerged. It was a flexible, entrepreneurial and responsive relationship characterised by clear communication, and one that was focused on outcomes rather than process. At the heart of the success, however, sat the care and passion of everyone involved, all of whom truly wanted the best for the future of Darlington.

Reference

Peter Roberts
Policy Advisor
Chief Executive’s Department
Darlington Borough Council
Town Hall,
Darlington,
DL1 5QT

01325 388713;
peter.roberts@darlington.gov.uk

Tony Cooper
Director
Bussey & Armstrong Limited
Brinkburn
147 Brinkburn Road
Darlington
County Durham
DL3 9LA

01325 462137
tony.c@busseyarmstrong.co.uk
www.busseyarmstrong.co.uk

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