Bidwell West - Uninteresting, Uninspiring, Local Centre Given Approval by Central Bedfordshire Councillors

When outline planning permission was granted to a consortium for 1850 homes it did not include a Class 2 residential care home. So when three FULL planning applications arrived for a local centre for Bidwell West as well as a 66 bed care home, it was a surprise to all those following developments in this area. 

In the area marked orange above the applications added 48 extra homes over and above the outline planning permission, therefore FULL applications were submitted to develop the 'Local Centre'. A planning application for a further Community building has not been submitted yet.  

The schematic below helps to explain what is envisaged in this area, with "North" off to the left hand side. The homes abutting the top of the schematic are already constructed by another developer. Blue dashes indicate walking connectivity.

David Skinner, a member of the public, addressed the meeting representing Houghton Regis Community Development Charity (HRCC). In a Late Sheet objection from HRCC it said, “We remain firmly of the opinion that this is a scheme that falls a long way short of the benchmarked aspirations articulated in the masterplan. The failure to engage the community in what they would see as important in their new centre stands in contrast to the consultations which have been made in advance of other local schemes. We are unconvinced of the architectural merit of this scheme. We do not perceive it as being distinctive or unique but rather a scheme such as the applicants have tried elsewhere.The improvements to the scheme are modest ...” (read in full the Late Sheet at foot of this page.)

Cllr Susan Goodchild (CBC Houghton Hall) put in a robust series of comments near the start of the decision making meeting objecting to the planning applications saying they were not what was originally hoped for to be at the heart of this Bidwell West development of 1850 homes. Cllr Goodchild urged the committee  to consider the proposals in their entirety. Read Susan's full address to DMC in the footnotes on this page.
You can watch councillors deliberating the THREE planning applications here (TIP: use the settings to speed up the replay of the discussions) :

The decision for these applications was originally hoped for by mid-August 2020 and was eventually passed by Central Bedfordshire Council's Development Management Committee(DMC)  on 9 December. It took councillors over three hours of debate before an outcome for the first application CB/20/01537/FULL for shops with blocks of flats, was decided. Eventually, the committee was split, and it was decided on chairman's casting vote to NOT to refuse the application. Then they voted 9 to 4 NOT to defer the item. Finally, voting was 7 to approve the application (with some suggested adjustments to be inserted by officers)  and 6 against.

Houghton Regis Town Council spent a lot of time discussing the plans and was supposed to have been represented at the DMC at this deciding meeting but the nominated councillor failed to get his technology working and so was unable to virtually attend the meeting that took place online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The second of the applications was similar to the first, but separated out the proposed nursery from the shops. That was application CB/20/01545/FULL. Voting on that took place after a somewhat shorter debate. For refusal 4; Against refusal 8.

The only Houghton Regis CBC councillor on the committee, and therefore entitled to vote, Cllr Hamill, had technological problems as he declared that his PC went off for a minute. Because of that, and that therefore he missed part of the arguments, he wasn't allowed to vote, despite the fact that he had seconded the original motion to  refuse permission. 

Voting then took place on the final resolution to approve the application and 8 approved it, with those against being 3.

Finally, debate took place over the third application CB/20/01538/FULL — for a 66-bed care home facing onto Thorn Road and its associated car parking and landscaping. The care home was not envisaged in the outline planning application. Access to this site would be through the car park of the shopping area. Councillors found very little to complain about with this application and ultimately they voted to approve of this.

The upshot of all these three planning applications being approved is that the CGI visualisations on this page from the plans, will, unless further alternative plans come forward, someday become the reality of the local centre on the Bidwell West location.

Cllr Pat Hamill wrote afterwards on his Facebook Page, “Community Hub setup is scuppered by Tory's voting to dump flats in front of the proposed build now to be hidden from public view.  
That's what the Tory's think of community buildings for Houghton Regis.  
We lose one above the old Coop due to fire and assured we would get a replacement and they cannot even honour that.  
Your town is being ransacked by developers at will and with Tory support as greenbelt gets eaten up just to satisfy Lutons unmet housing need. CBC is deserting those they are elected to serve and I have been fighting back and will continue to do so.  Your voice is being heard, I can assure you of that.”

Above: A CGI image of the proposed view looking to the south east from the new spine road at Thorn fields 

Editor's Opinion: 
“The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, so the shop frontages on the right hand side of the image above will be in shadow for most of the day, potentially creating an unwelcoming place for visitors. Coupled with the over-bearing car parking arrangements this will encourage people to go there, get what they want,  and drive away as quickly as possible. The original hope was for an area that helped to create a community space to bring new residents together. A space for a community centre has been allocated to the south, i.e. off to the right of the picture above, so the shop frontages will turn themselves away from the community building. You can only imagine how the back of these shops might look as they face onto the community building, and here, I'm thinking 'back of Bedford Square'.

“I'm making this comment having had the chance to mull things over after listening to a recording of councillors debate the issues for three hours and then sleeping on it. There's a lot to be said for hindsight. The debate sparked off my thoughts. If the councillors had deferred their decision until they had had a sleep, there might have been a different outcome seeking planners to come up with a more integrated comprehensive outcome.  Even if they had discussed and then deferred making a decision until they had  discussed all three applications, INSTEAD of deciding them separately, there might have been a better outcome.*

“Parking spaces have been designed at the boring traditional level. What do I mean by that? I mean at right angles to the roadway. The best ever parking I've seen was Highways England car park when J11A was being constructed. At 33% or so to the line of the roadway, drivers don't have to ponce about turning their wheels to get into a parking bay.

The plans that have been approved are uninteresting and uninspiring. A care home where visitors have to drive through a car park to get there. A rather bland looking row of shopfronts, where no one will want to linger longer than they have to. A centre that shuns a proposed local community hub, instead of being integral to it. In all, a sad day for planning for the future.”

 66 Bed Care Home

A 66-bed care home and its associated car park gained planning approval on 9 December 2020. The care home was not envisaged in the outline planning application.   

CGI view of care home from corner of Thorn Road and new spine road

Local Centre building’, ‘Pavilion’ and ‘Residential Block’  

This was approved 9 Dec 2020 by CBC councillors.

An alternative ‘Local Centre building’ with a detached nursery and ‘Pavilion’

This was approved 9 Dec 2020 by CBC councillors.


Care Home — Go to CBC planning portal and search for CB/20/01538/FULL or jump directly to the details at this link.

Shopping Centre — Go to the CBC planning portal and search for CB/20/01545/FULL or jump directly to the details at this link.

Shopping Centre etc — Go to the CBC planning portal and search for CB/20/01537/FULL or jump directly to the details at this link.

Images on this page - Copyright notice
Plans, drawings and material on this page are subject to copyright conditions on the Central Bedfordshire Council website. Follow the "details at this link" above to read those.

Cllr Susan Goodchild address to the DMC 9 Dec 2020
I, like others, was shocked and bewildered when 3 separate full applications came forward in May this year for the Bidwell West Local Centre. Shocked, because the site already had outline planning permission under the Bidwell West Development Consortium application approved in 2015 laying out the size and character of the Local Centre. Bewildered, as to why there were now 3 separate full applications, trying to understand how they all related to each other, and trying to understand the real motivation for this approach.
I, with other residents of Houghton Regis, was at Priory House when the Bidwell West Development Consortium application was discussed and approved in July 2015. I spoke at that meeting understanding that it was a major, strategic-scale, development of up to 1,850 homes and associated infrastructure, of huge importance to existing and future residents. I had many concerns about the development but took comfort in the fact that there would be some certainty about what was to be delivered, of critical importance was the delivery of a high quality, mixed-use, sustainable, Local Centre, the very hub of the community, I thought this was secured and would be delivered through the Bidwell West Development permission, the Local Centre should have come forward as a, relatively straightforward, reserved matters application under the outline planning permission.
Why did the development of this Local Centre not come forward as a reserved matters application? Crucially, the consented Bidwell West development does not include provision for a Class C2 Residential Institution and the number of dwellings is limited to 1,850. In other words, the current applications deviate from the outline planning permission.
Although there are 3 applications the Committee will need to consider the proposals in their entirety. Of course, you must look at each application on its own merits, but I would respectfully point out a single Planning Statement has been submitted to support all 3 applications. To quote from the Planning Statement, section 1.3 -  
All three applications will be submitted concurrently. This Planning Statement considers all elements of the scheme that has been conceived as a whole to ensure a comprehensive approach to the development of this local centre site. 
I would also ask the Committee to pay close attention to the Red Line boundaries to understand how all 3 sites intersect and are dependent on each other.
In effect the proposals change the character and squeeze more development onto the Local Centre site than was originally envisaged, this in my opinion, results in a very noticeable and detrimental over-development of the site making it an unattractive place to live, work, shop, learn, play and congregate in. Houghton Regis North was meant to be a Strategic Urban Extension delivering high quality community facilities and these proposals do not tick that box.
There is another aspect to consider, and I do not say this lightly, the proposals have been (really quite cleverly it has to be said) so structured as to effectively ‘bounce’ Central Bedfordshire Council into granting the developer exactly what they want.  One of the key issues it to understand the difference between the 52 apartment option and the 22 apartment option, surprisingly, it is not quantum of homes, but the fact they are for 2 different sites in that they cover different areas. Clearly, this requires some explanation, the 52 apartment option covers 0.75ha, the 22 apartment option is for 0.49ha, that is a difference of 0.26ha. You might reasonably conclude 52 apartments is an over-development of the site and approve the 22 apartment option, but that would leave a quarter-of-a-hectare block of land undeveloped slap bang in the middle of the Local Centre – in effect a ‘ransom-strip’. That scenario would put the developer in a very powerful position, they could come forward with an application for a residential block on that land in the future or simply use it to delay delivery of the Local Centre until they get what they want, I will not mince my words here, granting either option for the residential development will, inevitably, lead to an over-developed, third-rate Local Centre scheme.
I acknowledge the applicants have proposed a number of amendments to the original scheme, these have largely been improvements including reducing the retail space and car parking and increasing the public realm and landscaping. However, these do not address the fundamental issue of over-development and poor connectivity.
I am also very disappointed with the level and scope of S106 contributions, it is true to say there is serious under-funding for the Community Centre under the Bidwell West planning permission (Bidwell West would have a much better development if the scheme did not have to contribute 5 million pounds of S106 money for off-site roadworks).
It is the role of the Development Management Committee to make difficult decisions, I very much want to see the Bidwell West Local Centre developed, but I want all 3 of the current applications to be refused, they cannot deliver what was committed to: a high quality, attractive, well connected Local Centre to be proud of.

* Editors Comment
edited 4 hours after publication. The edited underlined portion previously said "Even if they had deferred a decision on all three applications BEFORE deciding on any one of them, there might have been a better outcome." This was edited to give better meaning to what I intended to write. AW.