Allerton Bywater was supposed to prove the Millennium Village format could work anywhere. Three years on, nothing's happened. Building asks what went wrong.
A derelict colliery in a WEST Yorkshire village always seemed like an improbable setting for a Millennium Village. A spot by the Thames in historic maritime Greenwich was a pretty safe bet for the developer, but grafting a modern, high-density urban village onto a depressed former mining community outside Leeds? According to deputy prime minister John Prescott, that was the point. When he launched the second Millennium Village competition at Allerton Bywater in July 1998, he said: "To prove that mixed-use development is sustainable, it must be flexible and capable of working in any part of the country." Two-and-a-half years on, Prescott's case remains unproven. Developer Aire Regeneration, a joint venture between housebuilders Gleeson and Miller Homes, has yet to sign an agreement with regeneration agency English Partnerships to develop the 23 ha site. Aire Design's competition-winning scheme is still waiting for outline planning approval from Leeds City Council. And the developer has yet to unveil any detailed designs. The design mentoring group, set up in September 1999 to make sure the developer sticks to the scheme as first proposed and satisfies the desires of the community, has not met since residents voted in favour of the scheme last July.

The developer says it has just about regained the ground lost when residents organised to oppose the scheme in late 1999, and next weekend is due to show them detailed designs of the first phase of 32 houses. "We are well on with the planning strategy and the design. The project is right on the cusp of major things starting to happen," says Duncan Innes, assistant development director at EP. However, Aire Regeneration is still not confident enough to show the drawings to Building until it has sounded out residents.

In the intervening period, we have the sobering story of what happened when Lord Rogers' urban renaissance clashed with facts on the ground, in the form of the sceptical residents of a former Yorkshire pit village. As Ricky Burdett, chair of the design mentoring group, says: "It is a classic example of top-down decision-making, which put the local community's nose out of joint." The project was a political statement by Prescott, who was anxious to demonstrate his commitment to communities still reeling from the decimation of the northern industrial heartland under the Tories. Burdett adds: "There were strong political reasons for its selection as a site, but more homework needed to be done to make sure it stacked up." The residents were not opposed to having a major housing development at Allerton Bywater as such. In any case, since the colliery shut in 1992, the site was earmarked for housing in the unitary development plan, so some form of residential scheme was inevitable. The views of housewife Irene Crosthwaite, 47, are typical: "I think it's a good thing; it will bring some sparkle back into the village. It was marvellous when the pit was open. All times of the day you always saw people going to the pit or coming from the pit. Since it shut, it's been pretty quiet. They say this village is going to bring more jobs, don't they?" "I think it's good news," says Grant Anderson, landlord of the Anchor Pub. "There is not much going on here at the moment. And they are going to build a skate park for the kids." The developer had to do a gruelling 150 hours of community consultation in the summer to bring most of the residents around to this way of thinking. Before that, rumours had abounded that Allerton was to become a dumping ground for problem families from rough east Leeds council estates. And they were going to cram as many of them in as possible – 600 houses in a village with a population of 4000. Because neither the developer nor EP had been on hand to quash those rumours, they acquired the solidity of established facts.

I think it’s good, because it will attract more visitors here and there will be more things to do. They are going to have a theatre and a track for motorbikes and quad bikes and a skate park and a bowling alley

Lee Powell, 10, Allerton Bywater resident

Those residents who went to the design consultation meetings had other concerns. First, they were foxed by the architectural jargon. What on earth were glazed "ecological streets" and "car barns?" What was all this timber cladding? And how would it cope with the Yorkshire weather? They wanted houses in brick and stone like the rest of the village. What was the point of a water feature from the colliery to the River Aire? They had quite enough water; in fact, the existing village, located on a low-lying plain, was prone to flooding.

By the end of 1999, a residents' group had formed to oppose the village. And it looked as though the developer might back out, since the profit to be made did not seem worth the aggravation.

There is an eclectic mix of housing in Allerton Bywater, so its charm is elusive. It is not like some pristine, millstone-grey Pennine village. The charm is more in the people than the place

Colin Burgon, MP for Elmet

Local MP Colin Burgon says EP and the developer made the fatal mistake of not explaining things to residents in simple terms. The pamphlets and exhibition material were in "business-to-business jargon" that succeeded admirably in getting residents' backs up.

Dissenting voices joined a hardcore opposition that, Crosthwaite says, was mostly composed of the longest-standing residents of Allerton Bywater. "It's dead clannish around here," she explains. "It's just people who've lived here 25 years who are naff against it. They don't want outsiders coming in." Faced with a full-scale rejection of the scheme, the developer and EP started to make concessions. They reduced the number of houses to 520, got rid of the water feature and, according to a Leeds councillor close to the project: "They have not persisted with some of the innovations. It is difficult to be innovative and carry the community with you.

The development will actually improve the flood situation because you will have drainage and storage that is not there at the moment

Les Brown, project manager, Aire Regeneration Partnership

People just want to see the kind of houses they live in reproduced. Estate agents can sell them. But it doesn't advance the debate about 21st-century living." Before the community agreed to put up with living next to a construction site for four years, it wanted to see some tangible benefits up front. So they would only back the scheme if it started with the £750 000 redevelopment of the derelict miners welfare centre and the £500 000 conversion of a derelict infants school. The developer balked at this, with the result that EP had to agree to find the funds itself.

EP's Innes denies that the outlay of public money needed to kick-start the village has been larger than envisaged. "Since the start of the project, we have realised that working partnerships are the best, most efficient way of delivering what the scheme is supposed to deliver. And I think that it is for EP to fund and procure some of it direct. It is a good change to have made." Since then, Aire Regeneration has appointed Broadway Malyan executive architect, and Aire Design – led by Professor Doug Clelland and Rod Springett, who designed the original scheme – has been reduced to producing a design code for the masterplan.

We just want them to bloody get on with it now. It’s supposed to be a Millennium Village and they haven’t even started it

Patron of Davit’s Bar, Allerton Bywater

Aire Regeneration and EP now claim that the project is back on track and that the design has remained virtually intact. So why not tell us what it will look like? The councillor explains: "The house types in the brochures did not get a great deal of support.

It looked like they were going for cheapness instead of quality." Crosthwaite admits: "Some people thought they looked a bit drab." The councillor warns that the future of the project is by no means certain. "If they don't sell the first phase fast, it could all become a very long process." The residents, meanwhile, are reported to be suffering from consultation fatigue and just want the developers to get on with it. As Burgon puts it: "They say 'Bloody hell, there's that many leaflets and that many displays …' But that's the paradox of public consultation. You have to do just the right amount or they get information overload and become inured to it." If the weary residents raise no objections to the designs they will see this week, Aire Regeneration will submit a detailed planning application next month. It hopes Leeds council will grant outline planning permission in March. EP would then submit an application for the redevelopment of the miners welfare centre, infants' school and 4000 m2 of commercial space in the spring. It hopes to start on site with infrastructure and the first phase of housing by summer 2001, with the first houses to be occupied by March 2002.

It was much more difficult than anyone anticipated. It has required an enormous amount of discussion, convincing, showing people examples of new housing that uses interesting materials

Ricky Burdett, chair of Allerton Bywater design mentoring group

A source at the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment says the project is a wasted opportunity. "It's not a millennium community; it's a village extension," he says. "The community would not put up with the pseudo hi-tec design, glazed streets and the like. It will become Leeds commuter-belt housing. It is a shame because it was a bloody good design brief, but it was the wrong location and got the wrong consortia bidding. CABE has never been asked to make any comment or give any advice. Allerton Bywater is water under the bridge now." The description of the second Millennium Village offered by Les Brown, project manager for Aire Regeneration, does not contradict CABE's analysis. Brown is so used to trying to reassure Allerton Bywater residents that nothing alien will be landing in their backyard,that he appears to admit that it will not be radically different from any other commuter-belt housing estate.

"It will only be different in how cars and transport are managed within it. And in that the houses are highly energy-efficient, warm and cheap to run. People are still slightly scared of the hi-tec, the innovative, the weird. That says to them, that's not us; we just want nice houses. What we are giving them is nice houses with all the sustainable stuff."

The people who voted against it want it to be a village where everyone knows everyone and you can tell your son’s friend off for causing trouble in the street. But it has already got bigger than that

Grant Anderson, 31, proprietor of the Anchor Pub, Allerton Bywater

So, what can be learned from Prescott's experiment? One conclusion stands out in Millennium Villages, Sustainable Communities, a report by consultant Llewelyn-Davies that analysed five urban villages, including Allerton Bywater. "The cardinal criterion for site selection should be the potential to achieve a viable sustainable settlement, rather than meeting the criteria for funding packages or political symbolism. Availability of sustainability infrastructure (such as good public transport or good quality local public services) and a pool of residents likely to value the sustainability features are high priorities."

How the village will look

How the village will look The village chiefs won’t show us the designs, but Building has obtained a description of the latest plans. It is designed as a modern, low-energy, semi-pedestrianised take on the vernacular of local villages such as Grassington and Ripley (the arrangement of streets, blocks and density being similar). It will consist of 520 houses of two to five bedrooms, priced from £50 000 to £100 000, including 15 houses for rent to old and disabled people. It also includes 21 000 m2 of commercial space, comprising managed workspace, a convenience store, hotel, pub-restaurant and a range of training and employment uses. The concrete-framed houses will be built in modular systems, using either a massive concrete panelling system or tunnelform construction, and faced with rainscreens finished in a range of materials. The 12 house types are designed and oriented for maximum solar gain. There are proposals to provide houses as shells that allow owners to work with the developer to customise internal fittings. Each house has front and back gardens, enabling a rear extension to be added later. The village has a compact design conducive to walking and cycling and is divided into Home Zones, where pedestrians take precedence over drivers. These zones are distinguished by a hierarchy of cladding materials including timber, brick, stone, flint and possibly terracotta and slate. The access routes will feature traffic-calming measures, recreation space and communal greenhouses and car barns – single-storey buildings that will provide off-street parking. The boarded-up miners welfare centre, located in the recreational hub in the existing village, will be redeveloped, a bowling pavilion built and tennis courts upgraded. The disused former infants school will be redeveloped into a “one-stop shop” for social, employment and training services. The primary school will be extended to accommodate the influx of children of Millennium Village residents. Environment-friendly measures include a proposal to channel rainwater into a reservoir and use it to water allotments. Also, methane gas from the disused mine shafts will be used to generate electricity for sale to the National Grid. Energy-efficiency targets are enshrined in the legal agreement between English Partnerships and Aire Regeneration. They are: energy use of just 15 kWh/m2 each year; 10% reduction in water consumption; rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling for use as external irrigation; and a 50% reduction in domestic waste. Other targets are zero defects and the provision of infrastructure for a village intranet.