The long road to Biggleswade: a model for urban extension

COMMENT Forgive my absence from this place. You may have seen my big news: my company, UK Regeneration, has recently been granted outline planning permission from Central Bedfordshire Council for our first pilot village of 1,500 homes on our large-scale strategic site, east of the medieval market town of Biggleswade, on the A1 corridor, and at the heart of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.

It has been a somewhat all-consuming and at times exhausting task. I am thinking of writing a book.

For nine long years, I have been on a mission to prove that you can build homes commercially, at pace and in volume, to a high design quality, in places where people wish to live. And that you can do this without riding roughshod over the existing community, nor compromising the natural environment.

It is all about quality of life. The Biggleswade scheme is to be the first of a series of villages that will emerge from a coherently planned country park, with a uniquely rural take on the standard urban extension model.

Only 40% of the site will be developed for housing, the rest will be given over to woodlands, walkways, cycle-ways, allotments and playing fields, dovetailing with the Biggleswade Green Wheel, and pledging to introduce far more biodiversity than was inherited.

We intend to deliver an exemplar garden town, which will unite the “old” with the “new” in one community. Our developments will put people more in touch with nature. People need oxygen. And access to the countryside.

Our designs seek to lift the spirits of all those who live or work in our developments. UKR puts community values at the heart of everything we do. We now move forward to the detailed application phase, in careful consultation with local people and our planning authority. And we are speaking to a number of possible delivery partners for the build out.

The power of partnerships

We couldn’t have done it without our partners, Central Bedfordshire Council, Biggleswade Town Council, the South East Midlands LEP and Homes England, which has been particularly helpful.

Homes England deputy chief executive Tom Walker said: “UKR are new entrants to the housing market – helping to tackle the housing crisis in the Oxford Cambridge Arc – and, like us, they are committed to speeding up the development of new homes where they are needed most. The team at Homes England are working closely with the UKR team to help remove any barriers to building.”

The fact that Tom was willing to characterise UKR as a “new entrant” is endearing. And very supportive. But I cannot think that any other industry takes so long to break into. As I say, I have been on the UKR mission for nine whole years (some of you kindly came on the journey with me), with a number of abortive schemes in Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield (many of which I still pine for) and it wasn’t until I alighted on the Biggleswade site that we really began to get some traction.

We bought the site in February 2016, got it allocated in the emerging CBC Draft Local Plan for housing, and then got an approval to grant outline planning permission in February 2019. The news was greeted with approbation from our industry last week; the consensus being that I had moved at mercurial speed. This is in stark contrast to my business partner and our financial backers, who believe that progress has been glacial – particularly given that it is a fully compliant scheme.

I wonder who is right?

Jackie Sadek is chief operating officer at UK Regeneration