A plan for Thaxted's future that protects its precious past
PUBLISHED: 12:02 24 April 2018 | UPDATED: 12:02 24 April 2018
Thaxted may be a place that treasures its history, but it is also a place that refuses to stand still. Petra Hornsby reveals the plans for the future that aim to protect Thaxted's precious past
Thaxted, situated in northwest Essex, is well known for its plentiful charm and rich history. Visitors enjoying the delights of Essex will have Thaxted high on their agenda – not to mention the many who visit every year to enjoy the music festival, founded more than 100 years ago by composer Gustav Holt and which takes place over two weekends during the summer.
Set in open agricultural land and with narrow streets featuring some beautiful timbered buildings, Thaxted is regarded as one of the region’s finest examples of a small market town, so it is little wonder that residents are keen to seize every opportunity to protect their town from any development that they feel would compromise its charm.
With the introduction of the Localism Act of 2011, the residents – like many elsewhere – have been inspired to establish a Neighbourhood Plan of their own which they hope will help them have their say and present their opinions in these times of housing shortages, economic pressure and an infrastructure under considerable strain.
Thaxted appears in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Tachesteda, old English for ‘place where thatch was got’. Thaxted was also famous for its cutlery manufacturing and the village’s Guildhall is one of four notable buildings that help define its heritage, along with an 18th century windmill, quaint almshouses and the magnificent medieval church.
The population stands at around 3,000 and is served by a primary school, health centre, shops, pubs and restaurants. Although many describe it as a town, having had a small town market charter granted in 1205, locals view the area as a village, which technically it is, as it is served by a Parish Council rather than a Town Council.
An official insight into the detail that is considered when reviewing the architectural and historical essence of Thaxted is evident in this excerpt from The Historic Settlement Character Assessment for Thaxted (2009) and which paints quite a picture:
‘The roofscape of the Conservation Area is noteworthy, contributing to Thaxted’s character and visual interest with its juxtaposition of different shapes and angles, heights and materials (tile, slate and thatch) and chimneys of varying styles. Building colours are predominantly yellows, oranges, pinks, blues and greens.’
The designated Conservation Area incorporates the heart of Thaxted, especially the main buildings of historic interest, and metaphorically embraces almost half of the built-up part of the town.
The many delights of Essex are a reason enough to live in places like Thaxted, but added to the mix is the unquestioned commutability to London and other locations on the rise such as Chelmsford, which makes it a hot spot for young people and families to settle.
This puts a huge strain on local authorities to build new, affordable homes both for private ownership and for subsidised rental also. It has been estimated that, within the boundaries of the county, more than 136,000 new homes are needed over the next 20 years.
Thaxted’s Neighbourhood Plan was instigated in 2015 and during 2016 and 2017, residents’ views were consulted via a household survey and reports have been commissioned to illustrate every aspect of Thaxted’s heritage, community and ecology.
Its intention is to include a set of policies to help govern local development which will run alongside Uttlesford District Council’s Local Plan. The Neighbourhood Plan is led by Thaxted’s Parish Council with support from a residents steering group that is made up of volunteers from the community and with contributions from local experts.
Richard Haynes is a member of the steering group and has lived in Thaxted for 26 years.
He explains: ‘The purpose of the plan is to put into policy format – to formalise – the wishes of the majority of residents. The people of Thaxted want sustainable and small scale growth that doesn’t destroy its historic character or its rural setting.’
The setting of Thaxted has changed little over the centuries, says Richard, and, in a report commissioned for the Neighbourhood Plan by Liz Lake, it is described thus:
‘The landscape is also important in its own right, of strongly underdeveloped rural character, it has considerable time-depth, historic field patterns, enclosed meadow pastures, intimate ancient pathways and mature trees and hedgerows all provide a strong sense of historic continuity, integrity and cultural value.’
In terms of new housing development, Richard is keen to stress that there is local understanding for the need for new homes across the county.
‘In terms of development, we are not opposed to new housing and we recognise the need for the next generation along to be able to have affordable housing so they can stay within their community. In terms of proposed housing by local authorities, we get off quite lightly and we have in the past argued successfully against larger developments which were thought inappropriate.
‘It is however speculative planning applications that are our biggest worry. Uttlesford District Council cannot prove a five year land supply – land ready to develop over the next five years – which could allow something of a planning application free-for-all with some being granted on the presumption of sustainable development.’
Richard also feels the purpose behind the Neighbourhood Plan goes beyond the subject of housing, as important as it is.
‘Our aim is not only to plan policies but also monitor proposals put forward by Uttlesford District Council which they will have to consult with us on before implementing. This could be the role of the steering committee or the Thaxted Society but, perhaps more appropriately, the Parish Council.
‘We are keen to represent the aspirational elements of the plan and these are broad ranging from conservation of heritage to environmental enhancement, planting schemes and restricting speed limits, amenities and the high street.’
There is technically no deadline for the plan – Uttlesford District Council had drafted their own Local Plan which, after public examination, went to the independent inspector who rejected it, which has meant going back to the drawing board and going back to consultation.
But Richard remains positive. ‘It is a great way for people to have their say. Although we recognise we are the third tier of planning policy, it is nevertheless an opportunity to set the standard and represent the general wishes of the people of Thaxted.’
With such commitment and dedication to the preservation of heritage and health of a community, Thaxted can surely look optimistically towards a future that also protects its past.