by Claudia Carter & Dan Roberts
New students, new impressions, new happenings. It’s Freshers’ Week and two coach loads of students and staff make their way to the West Midlands Safari Park which serves as the setting for a day’s work by budding students in building surveying, construction management, architectural technology, quantity surveying, real estate, and planning. The focus for the group studying Planning, Environment and Development is Bunkers Hill, a grass-covered flat-topped hill, punctuated by molehills and laced by wonderful mature trees (many of them chestnuts, which looked much better this year, recovered from the leave miner attacks in previous years).
We start by looking at a topographical and a basic park map to set the context before walking to Bunkers Hill past some of its (less fierce) animals, African inspired huts, remodelled stables block, the fairground and the renovated and extended ‘manor’ house, Spring Grove House, which now is largely used as a wedding venue. We then walk the rest of the way to the currently largely undeveloped part of the park ascending Bunkers Hill and taking in the views and grassy smell, spot the communication masts with their owl and bat boxes and walk around to get a better feel for the site.
Now to the challenge: How would one best fit a 250-bed hotel on this site? Where should it be located based on the character and slope of the land, the surrounding area, and to complement what has already been developed within the park? We did not show the students the actual outline plans, but wanted to get their ideas and impressions of what would suit the site and why. We emphasised that considering the economic development potential and viability of the project were crucial in current planning thinking.
And here is a snapshot of what they came up with:
- importance of the landscape and natural features, and the retention of trees;
- possibly building into part of the hill at one end – cut and fill;
- considering integrating other facilities (e.g. a spa, conferencing) with the hotel;
- keeping it small and working with the land form, preserving a natural feel.
Then we showed them the actual outline planning proposal plans that were prepared in 2013 for the proposed £80 million transformation of Bunkers Hill.[i] The students studied the plans, were intrigued by the way the proposed hotel dug into the hill with the main conference facility room being underground, swallowed hard at discovering that a nightclub was part of the proposal (and these are men and women in their late teens and early twenties). Lots of discussion followed and the question was asked “What have locals said about this all?” We cannot deny a happy glow coming across our faces when the question was raised because active engagement of the community is recognised at this early stage as part of good planning; finding out what kind of jobs and developments would suit and be welcome by the community and what concerns they have and which need considering in shaping the development.
Unlike so often caricatured in the media, there was no outright environment versus development conflict; the discussion was much more about what development was actually suitable for the place to serve the community’s and area’s needs as well as prove viable and profitable for the park. So in our scenario, the young planners did not refuse planning permission outright but all stated that more information was needed on the impacts and evidence of need. Unanimously, based on the limited data available, they felt that the development seemed too big for the site and that the current environmental assets were underused.
We came out with a good feeling about these first year students starting their planning career with a healthy dose of observation, holistic vision, interdisciplinary appetite and pleasant communication style to get their viewpoint across being able to provide sensible arguments. Whether Bunkers Hill development will provide a place to bunk off to in the future is yet to be decided…
[i] The development proposal is featured on the architect’s site http://www.rayhole-architects.com/node/98 and has been covered recently in the (local) news, see e.g. http://www.shropshirestar.com/news/2014/07/05/80-million-waterpark-and-hotel-plans-for-safari-park/; http://www.expressandstar.com/news/2014/07/05/west-midlands-safari-park-reveal-80-million-transformation-plans/; http://www.oswestryandborderchronicle.co.uk/news/2014/07/05/west-midlands-safari-park-reveal-80-million-transformation-plans/park-2-pm-03/
Claudia Carter’s research and teaching focuses on environmental governance, interdisciplinary perspectives on environmental sustainability and research methods. Dan Roberts is the Course Leader for the BSc in Planning, Environment and Development; his main subjects are Design and Place-making.