September Digest – A ‘perfect storm’ warning?

If you’ve been keeping an eye on the website, you’ll be aware of the staggering amount of change happening around us.  If you haven’t, then please take the time to follow the links in this email to read more detail.  While the primary focus of the Civic Society is on the centre of the town around St Faith’s, we cannot ignore the wider context of the borough and the length of this email simply reflects the fact that there is an awful lot going on.

The current pandemic has changed the way we work, shop, meet, communicate and use public transport and some of that change may well be permanent. Nobody can sensibly predict the impact that this dramatic change in circumstance will have on the profile of Havant’s residential and business communities. Central and local government are not making life any easier either, threatening a ‘perfect storm’ of change, much of it firmly rooted in pre-Covid, now obsolete, thinking.

The house building target of 504 homes per year from the ‘Havant Borough Local Plan to 2037’ was torpedoed in August by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government white paper on ‘Planning for the Future’. The updated ‘housing need’ algorithm jacked up the Havant number by an astonishing 91% to 937 homes per year. CPRE has been leading the charge against this unprecedented escalation of housing targets in the south, and bowing to pressure from the residents’ groups which make up the Havant Borough Residents’ Alliance, Havant Borough Council has finally seen the light, executing a handbrake turn and pushing back against the white paper just hours before the consultation deadline yesterday.

Meanwhile, European legislation on ‘nitrogen neutral’ development triggered a moratorium on new development approvals in the region this year. This EU directive provided protection for the environmental and ecological health of the Solent which is in serious decline due to the levels of agricultural and wastewater sourced nitrate laden pollutants flowing into it.  For a housing plan to be approved, a developer must prove no net increase in the pollution entering the Solent from their site.

Desperate to clear the planning and development log-jam and meet the increasingly unrealistic house building targets, HBC and other Solent area local authorities jumped on the ‘re-wilding’ bandwagon stitched together by Natural England and the Wildlife Trust.  Touted as a ‘win-win’ solution for the charity, the developers and the local authorities alike, the reality is that it is based on a convenient and selective interpretation of science with the main losers being the residents and the wildlife. Warblington Farm will evolve into a wildlife sanctuary over time as HBC calls off areas of the agricultural land to ‘re-wild’ and generate nitrate credits to sell on to the likes of Persimmon Homes. The government’s proposed online ‘nitrate trading’ auction platform will surely only accelerate this process.

In the midst of all this, HBC are charging headlong into an ever closer union with East Hants District Council. The executive and senior management layers of the two authorities merged a while ago, but we are concerned that the recent decision to move to a single combined workforce will have an adverse impact on the morale of the staff and the quality of the services delivered to you. With the council’s call centre sited in Coventry and services managed from Petersfield, the future doesn’t look too bright for us.

The depression at the centre of this perfect storm is deepening while political eyes are off the climate change ball.  Predictable change in the integrity of the coastal margins should be ringing warning bells against increased housing development in some southern parts of the borough anyway. With central and local government budgets stretched, the cost of local coastal defence strategies may not always remain justifiable.

With so much change – and we’ve not even mentioned Brexit – we believe HBC should stop and take stock of the pre-Covid foundations underpinning previously published ‘strategies’ before this all ends in tears.

Please take the time to read and digest the website links in this email.  As HBC adopts their new ‘Digital’ strategy with the emphasis on remote online communication, we will endeavour to keep you up to date through our website, Facebook and Twitter feeds, and the occasional email.

If you didn’t receive this recently as an email, then you’re not on our mailing list! To fix that, simply take this link and join us.

#rethinkhavant

Online public meetings

Over the past few months, many of us have become accustomed to holding meetings online using the various technologies available and it seems a common view that these meetings have been surprisingly productive.

If nothing else, this morning’s HCS Committee Zoom meeting served to reinforce our lack of diversity! (Expect to hear more of this in due course.)

One particular benefit noted is that these online meetings encourage active participation from a wider cross section of the community than might have been served by traditional on-site meetings. As such, we welcome last week’s HBC Cabinet meeting discussion on the use of online technology for forthcoming public meetings. So much so that we’ve written to HBC offering to help them with their testing of the technology with a public audience. Their stated plan to have ‘Cabinet and other public meetings’ opened online to the public by the mid-October is fairly aggressive, but is to be welcomed.

Nutrient neutrality and the HBC Warblington Farm ‘initiative’.

While we welcome a positive news story for Havant, we should put today’s press release from Havant Borough Council into a broader context and in doing so perhaps remove some of the political spin. (To read the original press release from DEFRA et al, from which most of the text of the HBC press release has clearly been taken, look here.)

The issue of nutrient neutrality has been around since pre-Covid times, first discussed here after a Havant Borough Council meeting which we attended in January and highlighted by discussions surrounding the Campdown development planning application.

Since we all went into lockdown in March, Havant Borough Council have been scurrying around behind the scenes (and mostly under the covers) trying to find a way around the safeguards of the EU Habitats Directive while fobbing us off with an endearingly patronising video to explain the issue:

If that didn’t make everything crystal clear and explain why Havant Borough Council are taking over the lease on Warblington Farm, let’s have another go. It really isn’t quite as simple as they’d have you believe.

The serious issue at hand is the state of health of the Solent, a large estuarine system internationally recognised for its marine habitats. With increasing flows of nutrients into the Solent, the balance of the organisms inhabiting the Solent is upset, with increased algal growth depleting dissolved oxygen and killing the marine life on which the wild bird population depends.

Several rivers flow directly into the Solent, notably the Medina, Yar and Newtown rivers on the Island side and the Lymington, Beaulieu and Meon on the mainland. Other rivers and streams flow indirectly into the Solent through the four harbours, including the Test and the Itchen. Between them these water courses drain a large land area around the Solent, carrying significant volumes of nutrients, including nitrates from farmland, treated waste water from housing and industrial development, and surface water runoff, some of which, for example from roads, carries additional pollutants.

In August, Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT) issued a ten page briefing document which gives a reasonably clear explanation of the issue and the need for mitigation. Take the link to open the document in a new tab in your browser and do take the time to study it.

The purchase by HIWWT of Little Duxmore Farm on the Isle of Wight as a project to take it out of ‘intensive’ agricultural use and return it to the wild, seems on the face of it to be a neat idea. By removing the farm’s use of nitrate fertilizer from the equation and selling ‘nitrate credits’ on to Fareham Borough Council’s developers, it’s a ‘win win’ situation for all.

Or is it? Certainly it is for HIWWT who, swallowing their principles, stand to gain sales of £2M worth of ‘nitrate credits’ from their £1M investment in the farm. Certainly for the housing developers who get to move ahead with their development projects and certainly for Fareham Borough Council who now have the ability to meet more of their central government imposed housing numbers.

So how does this relate to Havant? Havant Borough Council’s action in taking over the lease of Warblington Farm from Henry Young provides them with the same magic money tree. The nitrate credits theoretically released by rewilding Warblington farm will enable HBC to sell them on to the likes of Persimmon Homes who are desperately keen to get on with the Campdown development.

The big loser in this game, sadly, is the very wildlife around the Solent that the EU Habitats Directive and the ‘Dutch Case’ set out to protect. Why? Because the nitrates being released into the ground from agricultural land take years or decades to finally leach through into the watercourses. While the objective of ‘re-wilding’ farmland is admirable, the benefits certainly won’t be seen in our lifetime. What will be seen in our lifetime, however, is the impact of the additional housing development which will now move relentlessly ahead, unchecked. The problem for the Solent and its wildlife will get worse, not better, for the foreseeable future.

The Solent is a uniquely valuable waterway, not just for its wildlife but to the communities that live around its shores. To safeguard that value, in an ideal world, we need to move beyond nitrate neutrality and actively plan to decrease the nutrient load, appreciating that the Solent area is probably already overdeveloped and overpopulated.

Postscript – September 14th 2020.

We’ve put together a page with references to various external sources which may help with your understanding of the Nitrate Neutrality issue. To check this out, go to havantcivicsociety.uk/nitrates, or just click the link.

Warblington Farm – HBC flying under the radar

The Covid-19 situation seems to have given Havant Borough Council more excuse than usual to fly under the radar, with meetings held away from the public gaze and a distinct lack of scrutiny.

On the back of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust’s initiative’ on nitrate mitigation, it was obvious that Havant Borough Council were intent on looking for opportunities to play the same game. In common with many of the Solent district and borough councils, for example Eastleigh and Fareham, Havant Borough Council actually own much of the farmland on their patch, leasing it back to tenant farmers. Warblington Castle Farm has been the home of S.H.Young & Son Ltd, the dairy, for as long as many of us can remember, the old yellow electric milk float once a regular nocturnal sight on the town streets.

The heavily redacted documentation from the Council Meeting held on June 3rd didn’t do much to reinforce trust between HBC and local residents’ groups. The multiple references to ‘Warblington Farm’ which could be found by scanning its superficially blacked out pages proved suspicions that HBC were about to do a Little Duxley Farm job on our very own Warblington Castle Dairies.

On September 9, during Prime Minister’s Questions, our incumbent MP asked his PM to  “join me in thanking the farmers in Havant for the contribution they make to our country and our prosperity.” We assume he was referring to the contribution that Henry Young has been persuaded to make, giving up his livelihood so that Havant Borough Council can reap the benefits of the nitrate credit harvest.

The trouble is, we’re not convinced that the maths stacks up. The cashflow analysis of the Warblington Farm Nutrient Mitigation Scheme has not yet been made public.

We’re not holding our breath.

HBC – ‘Shaping our Future’ initiative

“Havant Borough Council (HBC) needs to make financial savings of £12.1M over five years while realigning its resources to the current priorities as set out in the Council’s strategies. The direct costs and loss of income resulting from coronavirus, the resulting economic downturn and Brexit have added significant uncertainty to the challenge. The degree of uncertainty means the nature and impact of these are difficult to quantify but it is prudent to plan for these to be financially significant.”

The paragraph above is taken from a report entitled ‘Shaping our Future – Transformation programme‘ which was presented at a Havant Borough Council Cabinet meeting last week. The report, which was approved for subsequent presentation to the full Council before presentation to East Hants District Council, sets out the objectives and vision for what is effectively a merger of the two administrations. The document notes their vision to “leverage their positive partnership with EHDC for the benefit of both councils.”

In a departure from previous Cabinet documents, which have had passages redacted in rather transparent black ink, this one contains passages encoded in a form of ‘Consultant speak’ popular in the 1990s. In it we learn that HBC aspires to become “outcome focussed and provider agnostic” with an “agile and financially sustainable operating model that delivers their transformation vision by October 2022“. Their “performance management regime that evidences a demand led and early intervention approach to the delivery of services” should achieve that and enable them to adopt an “agile, flexible and resilient ‘can do’ culture.” You’ll be pleased to note that they plan to “embrace a digital first approach” to their services, confident in the knowledge that they will be “brilliant at the basics; flexible, agile and resilient.

For those unable to decode the language of the report, the authors helpfully provide a couple of simple charts, reproduced below:

(For future audiences, a well known and well loved strategy for staying awake and appearing attentive during such presentations can be found here.)

Shoebox living – A warning for Havant?

A Sunday Times article on September 6 highlighted the issue of ‘shoebox living’, illustrated by a plan of six ‘flats’ in Southampton in a conversion from a former gas showroom.

Retail unit converted to tiny flats in Shirley, Southampton.

Developers are exploiting planning laws to convert empty banks, takeaways and barbers into tiny flats, causing fears Britain’s high streets are becoming modern slum housing. Relaxed planning laws and the impact of the coronavirus on the high street have led to a flood of applications to convert shops into homes under so-called permitted development rights (PDRs), which until recently had mainly been used for office conversions.

Since 2013 ‘permitted development rights’ have let developers bypass the requirement to apply for planning permission when turning office blocks into flats. Developers may not transform the outside appearance but have automatic rights to change how the property is used. This was expanded to include shops, bookmakers and launderettes in 2016, before fast-food outlets were added last year. Government data suggests 60,399 homes have already been created in this way and with the ludicrous housing numbers set for Havant, and the empty retail units in the town centre, we could well be next.

The Sunday Times article set a useful reference point by stating that the average car parking space in Britain is about 12 square metres (m2). This caused us to start looking at the sizes of new flats which have already been approved by Havant Borough Council, starting with the flats which are already part sold at 40 North Street on the site of the former Trentham art gallery and workshop.

Taking the ground floor flats as an example, there are currently two compact one bedroom flats, each with a floor area of 30 m2.

40 North Street – One bed flats

It’s not hard to imagine that the two currently unoccupied retail spaces at the front of that building will at some point be turned into another two ‘spacious’ flats under ‘Permitted Development Rights’ (PDR).

40 North Street – ‘Retail’

Across the road from 40 North Street, the old North Street Arcade has also been in our sights. Of the 29 flats currently approved for construction there, the largest at 70m2 contrast with the smallest at 37m2.

Prince George Street – One bedroom flat
Prince George Street – Two bedroom flat

Meanwhile, ‘north of the tracks’ at the Wessex site in New Lane, construction has been motoring ahead during lockdown and the flats being built are close to completion. The smallest of these starts at a relatively spacious 50m2, while the largest units squeeze two double bedrooms and two bathrooms into 78m2.

New lane – One bedroom flat
New Lane – Two bedroom flat

While en-suite shower rooms to the main bedroom in a two bed flat presumably attract higher market prices, it feels that a single family bathroom and more living space in a flat would make for a better living space. But then again, since we suspect that many of these flats will be ‘buy to let’ properties, the two bedroom / two bathroom ones could well morph into shared occupancy properties.

(Perhaps I’ve been watching too many episodes of ‘Homes under the Hammer’ during lockdown!)

North Street Arcade and its nitrate bill

You may have noticed the changes taking place during lock-down at the front of the North Street Arcade site. During the lockdown, the ill-starred Grastar Restaurant unit has been divided into two separate retail units while the former Dominos site has also been refurbished as a retail unit. The new flank walls suggest that the opening into the new flats will remain from North Street as originally planned, but a glance at the revised development plan submitted in May shows three additional retail units inserted into the arcade current entrance.

The net result of this will be that there will be six retail units facing onto North Street, as opposed to the eight retail units currently standing mostly empty around the existing arcade, with 29 flats built behind. It’s not clear what the west facing units on the two floors above the retail units will be used for.

As we explained earlier in the year, planning permission was granted for the original application back in January, conditional upon the imposition of a ‘Grampian Condition’. That committed the developer into the payment of an additional levy for offsetting the nitrogen generated. To see how this works, take a look at the nitrogen budget calculation which was added to the planning application in August. This calculation was generated using the Nitrogen Budget calculator issued by Natural England in June. If you’re able to open MS Office Excel files and are sufficiently curious, you can download the calculator here and play with it yourself. A ‘non-technical’ explanation of the issue and the process can be found in a PDF file accessible to anybody.

Langstone Technology Park – DCF comments

Yesterday afternoon I went along to the Civic Plaza to observe the Development Consultation Forum discussion regarding proposed development at Langstone Technology Park.

In the early seventies, this was the site which put Havant firmly on the global map as a centre of high technology manufacturing and information services. We’d already seen the international success of Scalectrix and Goodmans, and we’d seen Colts kick off the ‘We’re backing Britain‘ campaign in the late sixties, joined in short order by Kenwood. But then the IBM Plant and IBM Information Services Limited came to town and put the community and its workforce firmly on the worldwide stage.

Those of us who remember the four original buildings on the site, awarded the Financial Times award for Industrial Architecture in 1972, might recall that one of the key attributes of their architecture was the way in which they connected with the context of the site, a large green meadow which stretched right down to the shore from the A27.

Another of the fine attributes of the architecture was the way in which the untidiness of car parking was lost from view behind the site. Of all the development since IBM sold the site, the expansion of visible car parking in front of the site has done more than anything to destroy the impact of the site when viewed from the A27. OK, that’s a personal opinion by this particular writer, but the impressive view of the Arup site from the A27 trunk road made a real statement about Havant.

The current owners have engaged Rapleys, a property and planning consultancy, to breathe new life into the site. Their presentation last night was less than inspired, simply reflecting the unimaginative approach taken by their team. Their proposal, to demolish half of the original Plant building – ‘Building 1000’ – and replace it by a larger car park does nothing to present the site as something special, when viewed as a gateway from A27 flyover. A more challenging architect might demolish the newer, western end of that building and position the car parking there.

Rapley’s comments last night that they needed to introduce more glazing to make the buildings ‘sustainable’ for modern use should also be challenged. Take a look at the original design at the top of this page and you’ll note that the bottom half of the building has extensive glazing. For the top, introduce light wells and courtyards but for heaven’s sake, keep the beautiful external elevations.

The standard of ‘architecture’ in the brief published for the meeting doesn’t really inspire confidence. The ‘concept’ and ‘design’ drawings shown below are those of the Rapleys, but the choice of font is mine. (If ever drawings deserved the use of the MS Comic Sans font, more appropriately reserved for five year olds, this is it)

Our advice to the owner? Firstly find a more challenging architect who understands the value of the heritage assets then take your marketing to the next level and look for more imaginative potential users of the space. Don’t forget that modern ‘cloud computing’ isn’t actually ‘up in the sky’ but requires acre upon acre of data centre floor space. Almost exactly what Arup designed back in the sixties.

Our advice to Havant Borough Council, capitalise on the quality of the original globally renowned site and refuse to allow third rate mediocrity to replace it.

Spot the difference! The Domino’s challenge.

Here’s a little something for the weekend. Are you ready to take the Domino’s challenge? Well if you are, here’s a little ‘Spot the difference’ test:

Do you remember the planning application for the Domino’s Pizza Takeaway at 39 West Street? Well, to be more correct, both planning applications for 39 West Street? Turned down unanimously last October, then curiously passed when it was resubmitted in January?

Well the application, and subsequent approval, was for a ‘Hot Food Takeaway – Use class A5. Why is this significant? Well A5 covers ‘hot food take-away’ only. To be used as an eat in establishment, which Domino’s at 39 West Street is morphing into, they’d need to have another change of use to A3.

In support of their application, they submitted a plan for… well… a takeaway. Just take a look at the detail on that plan, below, and note the position of the ‘oven’ and the ‘preparation area’.

Then next time you’re walking past, take a look at what they actually built!

We’re delighted to see that the enforcement team are on the case and we’ll keep you posted on their progress.

Is there a future for the original IBM Havant site buildings?

Back in January, we reported on a move to list the former IBM Havant Plant buildings at what is now the Langstone Technology Park. If such a move is to bear fruit, it can’t come soon enough. Havant Borough Council’s Development Consultation Forum #48 will consider the future of this site on Tuesday 21st May at 6:00pm and the author of this piece plans to be there..

An early image of the Havant Plant, taken from the north western boundary.

The first Havant IBM manufacturing building in Solent Road has long since disappeared, demolished to make way for Havant’s first ‘out of town’ Tesco store. The building which replaced it was the long, elegant structure shown above, designed by Arup Associates and winner of the prestigious Financial Times Award for Industrial Architecture in 1972.

The IBM Information Services Ltd. building constructed on the same site, linked to the plant building by a glazed corridor and reception area, was an integral part of Arup’s design. Known internally as the Respond building, an IBM acronym that escapes me now, the building resembled a record deck with a concrete rendered lower part concealing a computer centre and a dark glazed upper part containing offices.

Sadly, the visual impact of the two original buildings in the context of the green field in which they stood has been greatly reduced by the development of the large car park at the eastern end. The original architecture contained a small car park for visitors and executives at the steps up to the main entrance in the glass link between the buildings.

The main car park was just to the south of the manufacturing plant and also included a number of temporary buildings which provided the home for two groups of systems and application programmers, one looking after the IBM manufacturing information systems, the other developing the systems which ran IBM’s World Trade business operations. To the south of those temporary buildings, past the original car park, the remainder of the land down to the shore remained undeveloped, save for playing fields and the IBM staff club on Southmoor Lane.

This shot shows the site after the second phase of development, but still before the rest of the Southmoor area had been ‘developed’. The two original buildings are the Respond building at the left of this group of four, with the IBM Plant building in the foreground. The first, sensitive extension of the plant building can also clearly be seen at the right hand, western, end. The two buildings in the background of the group are Arup’s second, later bite of the cherry. This shot shows the small visitors’ car park at the main entrance and the glass walkway between the two original buildings can still be seen.

In 1977, the new IBM UK Headquarters offices opened at North Harbour, with staff relocating from the Havant temporary buildings, the original London headquarters building in Chiswick and the single storey glazed temporary building in Northern Road, Cosham.

The Havant temporary buildings were bulldozed to make way for the second phase of the Langstone site development. The old London HQ site still exists, renamed Chiswick Tower and now home to the British Standards Institute, while the young Norman Foster’s ‘temporary’ glass building at Northern Road, Cosham, was eventually awarded Grade 2 listing and has for some years been occupied by HMRC as ‘Lynx House’.

Going back to the two original buildings at Langstone, it’s worth understanding how important this site was, both to IBM and to Havant. At the time of their construction in the early 1970s, Havant was already home to a number of global manufacturing brands, Kenwood, Colt, Lewmar and Goodmans being four other significant global brands. Minimodels, the manufacturer of Scalextric was moving out of its Leigh Park site but the Havant area was still a hotbed of technical development and manufacturing with a proven quality workforce. The existence of these brands in Havant were influential in IBM’s decision to build such an important manufacturing and development site on the Langstone site.

A little background is probably appropriate…

By the early 1970s, the IBM world was divided into two parts of roughly equal business size, IBM US and IBM World Trade, the main company product line being the IBM 370 series family of mainframe computers. Now dwarfed by the technology in our homes and pockets, these huge machines were the state-of-the-art computers of their day and were used to run the business of many of the Fortune 500 companies.

An IBM 370 series installation, including the Central Processing Unit at the back, tape drives on the left, removable disk drives on the right and printers in the foreground. The Havant Plant building and the Respond building each typically contained around four of these water cooled behemoths at any one time in secure air conditioned machine rooms, running IBM World Trade’s operational and manufacturing business.

The US arm of the IBM corporation produced all of the component parts of these systems for the North American market in a number of plants across the United States, each plant concentrating on a specific component.

For the World Trade division however, the manufacturing plants were spread around the world with the new Havant plant site building the Central Processing Units (CPUs). Other plants, notably in Sweden, Germany, France and Italy, but also in Japan, Mexico and Argentina produced peripheral components all of which were brought into the Havant Plant building for ‘systems integration’ before final shipment of the complete, tested system to the customer site.

In the 1970s, that long flat building was divided into three parts. At one end was the machine room, housing the computers that managed the manufacturing process while at the other end was a clean room where semiconductor chips were developed and manufactured. The bulk of the floor space in between was taken up by the manufacturing space for the ‘big blue boxes’, the CPUs. Hanging from the ceiling above each of the half dozen or so being constructed at any one time was a board with the name of the customer for whom that system was being built.

To those of us who witnessed this manufacturing operation ‘from the inside’, it was an impressive spectacle, a demonstration of the power and reach of the IBM corporation as a once genuinely global business.

So should the site be protected by listing?

The original buildings date from a time when Havant peaked as a globally acknowledged centre of high tech manufacturing industry. It could also be said that the time also marked the point at which IBM’s dominance of the global computer systems market peaked.

By the 1990’s, the IBM Havant plant was reduced to the development and manufacture of computer disk drives. In 1993, with UK manufacturing costs being too high, the IBM Corporation let the Havant plant go to a management buyout and the site became the home of Xyratex.

As soon as they were contractually free to do so, IBM opened a new low cost disk plant in Hungary in direct competition with Xyratex. The ethical principles espoused by Thomas Watson for IBM had been diluted and devalued by the 1990s. The creaking IBM printer business was similarly sold off in a leveraged buyout, forming the Lexmark company. Once again, when contractual constraints were lifted, IBM re-launched its own printer division using low cost manufacturing.

I’ve not seen inside the Havant Plant building since the late ’70s but feel sure that the overall architecture of the space must still be sound. As a large exhibition hall with superb transport links, it might be preserved by a far sighted owner.

But then the progressive vandalism of the last forty years of insensitive planning and development might just have rendered it beyond recovery…

I might also argue that IBM actually started the rot here by selling off its own global property portfolio in order to keep balancing the books. The relentless increase in performance of computer hardware predicted by Moores Law , coupled with the commoditisation of the computer hardware business, necessitated desperate action to keep the stockholders happy.

In the sixties and seventies, the IBM UK property portfolio displayed some of the finest architecture of the day, the Langstone site just one example. Nowadays, there’s only one site in the UK still owned by IBM, and that’s Hursley. The reason? IBM UK never owned it, it’s the property of the US company. Even that other Norman Foster building on the South Bank is now owned by Alan Sugar.

(I should point out that the rambling views in this post are personal observations by the editor and are not necessarily the views of the HCS Committee. Bob C. )