|Durham: the good, the bad and the ugly
||[Jul. 8th, 2015|10:11 pm]
durham_rambler is at a meeting: the sixth in three days, and, I hope, the last of the week. Right now he is chairing a consultation exercise, at which the Neighbourhood Planning Forum asks the people of Durham City for their views, from which the NPF will then construct a planning policy for Durham (if you want to know more, it's on the NPF website). I am excused attendance, because I was at the previous meeting last week; tonight's meeting is a repeat, for the benefit of the overflow of people who could not be fitted in to the Town Hall last time round. Now I need to pull together my thoughts, and answer the NPF's questionnaire.
There are three questions: What is good about the Durham City centre area? What is bad about the Durham City centre area? What needs to change? My plan is to draft my answers here, and then I'll have a record...
What is good about the Durham City centre area?
- Its heritage, obviously. The world-class medieval centre, but also the heritage of Durham as the focus of a mining area (Redhills, the Old Miners' Hall, the North Road Methodist chapel, the viaduct, Old Shire Hall...), not just the buildings but the living tradition of the Gala.
- Its situation: it's a small city, but within easy reach of Newcastle-Gateshead, Sunderland, Darlington for shops and entertainment, Weardale and the coast for leisure. Durham can't compete with larger towns, but it can benefit from them.
- Despite a lot of building (particularly beside the river) green spaces still survive in the centre of the city: the river banks around the peninsula, the Sands and across to Crook Hall, Flass Vale, around the South Road colleges...
- The indoor market has some excellent shops, and offers the best shopping in Durham; in addition, there are some very good small shops.
What is bad about the Durham City centre area?
- The University brings undoubted benefits to the city, but it is surely by now too big to be accommodated in a small city, and it does not do enough to reduce the harm that results from this. Too many houses have been removed from the housing market to be let to students, too many brownfield sites are becoming unavailable for general and affordable housing because they are being developed as PBSAs, too many areas are becoming uninhabitable for families and other permanent residents. This social change is not being planned, but is being allowed to happen piecemeal, driven by private profits.
- The so-called 'vibrant night-time economy': a drink-fuelled culture encouraged by those who are making a lot of money out of it. It damages the community, it damages the participants. Presumably the university still has alternative entertainments to offer to students, but what is there for the young people who still live in the city (assuming there still are some) to do?
- The city's economy suffers because so high a proportion of the residents are only here for half the year: shops and other businesses have to make their profits in term-time. Yet rents and rates are high. Restaurants can hope to make up for the absent students by catering to tourists, but everyday shops cannot.
- Many of the shops which ought to be contributing to a living city centre are on out-of-town sites. Meanwhile, the city centre suffers from empty shops, and an excess of charity shops (and I love charity shops; but we have more than is healthy).
- The Old Miners' Hall, the Count's House, the broken paving stones and patched roadways, Neville's Cross itself: it seems easier to fund large and pointless projects than to pay for maintenance.
- The North Road is not a taxi rank.
What needs to change?
- The university must take more responsibility for housing its students. It boast of being a collegiate university, and should act like one. More students should be accommodated in colleges, and PBSAs should be brought within the college system, with the level of surveillance and pastoral care that implies.
- The council needs to stop approving planning applications piecemeal, and begin to plan for how much student accommodation is needed, and where.
- HMOs are not residential properties, they are a business, and should be treated as such.
- It is too late for the Council to use an Article 4 Direction to ensure balanced communities; their stated aim that no area should be more than 10% student houses cannot be met by preventing further conversions. We need to look for ways to return houses to family occupation, reversing any changes which have been made to adapt them for multiple occupancy. Perhaps the council could set up or partner a Housing Association with this aim.
- Durham needs development which recognises its strengths and is sensitive to its nature. It is a small city, and care must be taken not to overdevelop it in a way or to an extent which is harmful to its potential as a tourist destination. Resources should be put into the maintenance which will make it a more attractive place to be, and to an information centre which can persuade visitors to extend their stay in Dueham.
- No amount of Prince Bishops shopping streets will enable Durham to rival the Metro Centre as a retail destination: but it could accommodate the mix of galleries, small shops and cafés that draws visitors to Corbridge.
I could go on, but perhaps I'd better not. I know that as soon as I've pressed 'submit' on the questionnaire, I'll think of something essential I've missed out, but it's time to take that chance...