|Interesting case study on Farnham
Urban Renaissance in the South East – Case Study 14
Size of Town: Medium (1991 Census population: 36,000)
Type of Town: Market
Type of Area: Western Arc
Local Authority: Waverley Borough Council
Farnham is a good example of how a concerned local community, working with conservation minded local authorities, can retain and enhance its heritage and special character while developing and diversifying its centre, so as to keep it vital and viable. It boasts one of the longest established conservation societies – and one of the longest established building preservation trusts – in the country.
Main points illustrated by case study:
· century long emphasis on conserving and improving the built environment
· “conserving the best of the old, while welcoming the best of the new”
· recognition of the importance of human-scale buildings
· insistence on retention of town’s Georgian character
· insistence on quality and good urban design
· well-designed, high-density infill schemes
· specialty shopping
· good use of yards and passages
Maintenance of Momentum
· range of local mechanisms (conservation-minded District Council, lively Town Council, Town Initiative, established local Conservation Society, Building Preservation Trust).
Farnham is a medieval market town which was substantially rebuilt in Georgian times, and to some extent again in the early 20th century although in neo-Georgian style. It is in a prosperous part of Surrey, close to the border with Hampshire. It is 10 miles west of Guildford and 3 miles from Aldershot (“the home of the British Army”). It is at a busy crossroads and has had a long and prosperous history. It is within commuting distance of London (45-50 minute journey time), although it is not on the main line.
Although Farnham has a castle, its main feature is its outstanding heritage of historic domestic buildings. Its “character depends very largely upon many pleasant small houses”, especially its fine Georgian houses “built in rich red brick”. “Castle Street is thought to be one of the finest Georgian Streets in England”. “The quality of the historic environment in the town centre is very high and Farnham has retained all the charm of a country market town”.
Farnham was the home of Cobbett, the radical writer, and still prides itself on independent-mindedness. It has a considerable student population because of the presence of the Surrey Institute of Art and Design, University College. But, although the town has a number of attractions, the real draw is the town centre itself.
Programmes and Outputs
a. Economic Strength
Farnham has a particularly wealthy population. However, like many medium-sized towns it has lost out in retailing terms to larger centres which can easily be reached by car, like Guildford, and to out-of-town shopping. While many of the old independent shops have disappeared and been replaced by the familiar multiples, the town has resisted much of the post-war retail development that has made so many town centres in Britain look and feel so charmless.
By retaining small shop premises, Farnham has managed to differentiate itself from its larger neighbours and now boasts a good range of specialist shops as well as many small restaurants and cafes. The vacancy level is only 10%. Furthermore, modern supermarkets, including a Sainsburys, have been fitted into the town centre and a Safeway helps to anchor the Lion and Lamb Yard scheme – one of a number of successful new developments that have managed to blend in well with the historic surroundings, as well as adding to the attractions of the town. In spite of its heritage, Farnham has not stood still.
b. Environmental Responsibility
Farnham has retained many of its old buildings and adapted them to new uses. It has been particularly diligent in retaining smaller buildings with merit, even when they are not listed. In part the quality of the town centre is due (as a Georgian Society report on the town in 1991 states) to local authorities that are committed to conservation and high design standards, and to “an active and responsible local amenity society, the Farnham Society, as well as a body which translates conservation aims into real action – the Farnham Trust. Such a fund of enthusiasm and knowledge is invaluable…” A good example of this was the pioneering conversion, from 1969 onwards, of an old brewery into a range of uses, including workshops and studios, known as Farnham Maltings.
The Farnham Society, one of the oldest conservation societies in the country, was founded in 1911. From the outset it “understood the importance of conserving the best of the old, while welcoming the best of the new”. The fact that there has been concern for Farnham’s buildings for such a long time is one reason why so many fine buildings still remain. The Farnham Trust, an active building preservation trust, was founded in 1968 to rescue and restore buildings in the town, and started by taking over a group of cottages that had been condemned by the Council. The Trust has packaged grants from a variety of sources, and used low cost loan finance from the Architectural Heritage Fund to tackle projects that were too complex or risky for private developers to contemplate. Uses have ranged from housing for homeless families to an art gallery. Its latest project involves the conservation and re-use of a working pottery on the edge of the town, leasing back one third of the floor space to the owner of the business.
Traffic in Farnham still remains a major problem, as the new Local Plan admits. Although the main A31 (Guildford to Winchester) road bypasses the centre, there are high volumes of through traffic on two other ‘A’ roads that pass through it. There is a one way system around the shopping area which carries an average of 12,000 vehicles per day, including nearly 900 HGVs. The roads and pavements are narrow in places, and pedestrians can feel intimidated. Heavy traffic detracts from the character of the streets, and at many times of the day parked vehicles making deliveries cause obstruction. Air pollution can be high.
A Farnham Movement Study has been carried out and this makes recommendations as to how improvements can be made, which the Council will seek to implement in conjunction with Surrey County Council. Where appropriate developers will be expected to contribute towards the costs of the improvements. However, although Farnham has been very successful in dealing with some aspects of the environment, it has not yet managed to tame the traffic. This not only makes the centre more difficult and less pleasant to use, but will also deter more people from wanting to live in the town centre.
c. Design Excellence
Farnham is remarkable for the state of preservation of its Georgian and Victorian buildings, but there have also been a number of major new developments in the town centre which, as the Georgian Society report says, “have been effected with care and consideration for their historic context”. A notable example is one of the old passageways running off West Street which now contains shops, cafes and a gallery and is a pleasant and popular place to stroll. There are also well designed, new, small-scale housing developments in the centre, although there is still vacant or under-used space particularly above commercial premises.
The need for high quality urban design is stressed in the Local Plan (which has a policy specifically devoted to it). In fact, there has been a long tradition of urban design in Farnham, especially in the early decades of the 20th century when local architect Harold Falkner, backed by the Chairman of the then Urban District Council, designed a series of neo-Georgian buildings, which “saved the centre of Farnham” and are now considered as a style in their own right. However, the Georgian Society also commented that there were the dangers of the erosion of detail, for example through poor quality pointing, and ‘bogus historicism’ in which “older is better but something that looks older is better still”. The 1990 Borough Plan called for “high design standards to ensure that the new development is sympathetic in siting, scale, style, materials and detailing”.
Like all historic towns, Farnham has gone through many phases and prospered through most of them – as the power base of the Bishops of Winchester; as one of the biggest wheat markets in the country; as a centre of the hop industry; as a commuter (and retirement) town; and now as a busy, historic place with “all the charm of a country market town”. In many ways it does not therefore need a renaissance. It mainly has to hold on to what it has. In the Local Plan the aim for the town is exactly the same as that for all the main towns in Waverley:
· to foster economic prosperity
· to conserve and enhance the environment and local distinctiveness of the centre
· to ensure good access by private or public transport.
Thus, there is no specific vision for Farnham and no specific strategy for reaching it.
However, in reality Farnham has been undergoing, or maintaining, a renaissance for a long time already. In particular, it has been consciously conserving and improving its built heritage and public realm for almost a century. It has managed to retain its essential character, particularly its fine human-scale buildings, while also managing to grow steadily in size (roughly doubling its population since the war).
In most ways, Farnham has managed to keep up with modern life without succumbing to the retailing and car-parking revolutions of the past few decades, which (with hindsight) rarely brought lasting benefits to medium-sized towns. Its small-scale buildings and its secluded places and passages are now seen as being just right for successful ‘Living Places’. Thus, because of past vision and strategy, Farnham is well placed to take further advantage of the new opportunities for attractive urban living. Furthermore, it has many of the right mechanisms in place for ensuring that this happens: a conservation-minded District Council, a lively Town Council, a Town Initiative, the Farnham Society, the Farnham Trust etc.
The main area in which vision and strategy are still required is in transport. More radical solutions are required to the traffic problems and to providing much better public transport, if Farnham is to reach its full potential as a town to live in (as well as use) and as a sustainable place. This is all the more urgent as the town is doing so well in other respects.
Farnham appears to be doing well in spite of not having a specific renaissance strategy, and in spite of not having taken a holistic approach – or at least having fallen far short of taming its traffic. Perhaps it is the ‘exception that proves the rule’! However there would appear to be several lessons.
First, Farnham does have a vision and strategy, but it is nearly a hundred years old. Based on enlightened conservation (retaining the best of the old and resisting all but the best of the new) it has succeeded extremely well. There is no point in trying to invent a new vision if the old one is perfectly good (although it may be necessary to ensure that it is widely publicised and understood).
Secondly, renaissance is a very long-term process. Many other towns, which had at least some – but probably not all – of Farnham’s pleasant buildings and charm, did not protect what they had and, by allowing “bland, boring and totally unimaginative” development to replace it, they may now find that they have little or no ‘special character’ left on which to build. Special character can, of course, be derived from things other than the environment, but one lesson from Farnham is that it may take a very long time to develop. There is nothing fundamentally unique about what Farnham has done that could not be (or could not have been) replicated in many other towns in the South East – except that it has realised that quality matters and stuck to this principle for a long time.
Thirdly, although traffic stands out as a major problem, it is a problem which few towns in Britain
can claim to have fully solved. Farnham can probably get away with it, as it is not so very much worse than elsewhere. This, however, does not mean that a holistic approach to renaissance is not required. If standards improve elsewhere, Farnham will have to do much more to solve its traffic problems. Otherwise it will not fulfil its potential, no matter how fine its built environment is.
Published 21 December 2000