A village is born;FE Focus

5th March 1999 at 00:00
Education has a vital role to play if a housing estate is to become a community. Martin Whittaker reports on the attempt to turn a former RAF base in the Cotswolds into a place with soul - and parish newsletters.

THE pretty Cotswold village of Little Rissington with its traditional stone buildings has evolved over centuries. Its neighbour, Upper Rissington, has a matter of months to do the same job.

The village is rising from the rubble of a former military base and trying to build its community from scratch, with the help of a partnership of education and training providers.

Stephen Wright, director of Gloucestershire Rural Community Council (GRCC), said new settlements like this pose a challenge for all. "As a new community being thrust together in this conglomeration of buildings, it's important that they know how to operate the system, how to work their own community groups."

With a nucleus of 700 to 800 newcomers, he says, there's an opportunity there for adult-training providers, whether the subject be "line dancing or computing."

The new housing estate is on a vast former RAF base near the Oxfordshire border, which last saw active service as a military hospital during the Gulf war.

Developers bought the site four years ago. So far, 212 former MoD houses have been refurbished and a new estate of executive homes is under way.

The population of Upper Rissington is growing steadily, with young families attracted by affordable houses. A village hall and shop-post office are being built, but there are no other local services and this rural site is isolated with poor public transport.

And there are virtually no local jobs. Some hangars were to be transformed into a new business park, but the scheme upset the neighbours and now hangs on the outcome of a public inquiry.

Meanwhile, Upper Rissington has put in a bid to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to become a parish. If it succeeds, the first parish council elections will be held in May.

And as builders put the finishing touches to the new village hall, residents are taking evening classes in how to be a parish councillor and run a community building.

They learn about elections, the powers a parish council has, and how it relates to district and county councils. They also are told about shaping their community - for example, through village design statements which can be adopted by district councils as development guidelines.

The GRCC also teamed up with Gloucestershire College of Arts amp; Technology to assess the community's adult education needs. With a partnership of colleges, and organisations like the Workers' Educational Association and University of the Third Age, courses will be laid on in the new hall.

Stephen Wright says important lessons had been learned from other housing developments such as Bradley Stoke (see below), where thousands of homes were built with scant regard for the growing community's needs.

"If you take a redundant MoD base it's not just a question of taking down a perimeter fence and all the barbed wire and saying 'Great - we have a community'," he said. "It's critical from the very earliest planning stages, that groups who can assist that community to grow and come together, start meeting and planning .

"As a rural community council we will be endeavouring to make sure that where a community requires adult and continuing education, then it will be provided in one form or another."

According to official figures, the number of households in England alone is set to increase by 4.4 million by 2016.

Kevin Murray, senior vice-president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, says a holistic approach must be taken in creating new communities. And he says FE colleges and other education providers must play a key role. "In town planning we normally think about the physical side, but the community side is absolutely critical. And the education and training dimension is probably at the core of it."

He said colleges are beginning to respond to the challenge, and added: "It depends where they are and how progressive their management is. Obviously a lot of them have to be much more financially astute than they were. So they have to understand whether there's a market.

"I am optimistic that we can avoid mistakes of the past, but I have to say we haven't turned that corner yet.There is still a preponderance of what I call mono-use communities - just houses, and then just retail, and then somewhere else that's just employment space. There's not enough integration of uses and activities."

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