Could urban orchards become a core issue for planners?

Could it be a case of history repeating itself? Alex Hicken, Managing Director at DHA, considers what the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s recommendation to plant two million trees for streets across the UK could mean for our region, and beyond.

It was the planting of apple and cherry orchards at Teynham in Kent by Henry VIII’s royal fruiterer in 1533 (a good fact for a Kentish pub quiz night) that led to the county becoming known as the Garden of England.

The county’s still one of the UK’s largest producers of cherries, apples and pears, and now the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s (BBBC) recently published report ‘Living with Beauty’ has recommended a major tree planting programme linked to urban development, in the form of urban orchards.

The BBBC report recommends that developers should be encouraged to plant a fruit tree in an urban community orchard for every house they build, to improve community wellbeing. The recommendation is an emotive one, harking back to the days of Darling Buds of May, so is likely to be well received by the public and politicians alike.

That all sounds eminently sensible, until you look at the scale of the challenge. Kent County Council suggests the county will require 178,600 new homes by 2031 – and with the average community orchard planting at 325 trees per acre – that would require Kent alone to plant nearly 550 acres of new orchards by 2031. That’s a lot of fruit, and a lot of land.

BBBC may simply define an urban orchard as a small cluster of fruit trees within the development, so the one tree per house may be delivered as part of a scheme’s landscaping or open space, and off-site provision or even within the homes’ gardens – as always, the devil is in the detail.

It’s possible that these are best delivered by making the orchards integral to the scheme’s design with the prospect of slightly higher densities of dwellings to accommodate them and maintain viability.

This recommendation, if adopted, would also make a small, and healthy, contribution to the Government’s target to become carbon neutral by 2050.

In Kent, the concept of a community orchards is not a new one. In fact, DHA has been involved with the development of a number of these and wider tree planting schemes as part of the planning process.

One notable scheme involving a community orchard was in Marden. DHA, acting for local landowners Firmins and Countryside Properties, successfully secured permission for 124 new homes in the centre of the village. This involved the relocation of the Marden Hockey & Cricket Club and creation of a two-acre community orchard integral to the project.

Today, the Marden scheme has proved hugely popular. Each of the Russett-type apple trees, including varieties unique to Marden, were available for adoption by local residents and organisations, who now receive the harvest. The orchard has stimulated the biodiversity of the area, provided a haven for bee colonies and produced tasty organic English apples.

Nearly 500 years after Henry’s fruit grower planted orchards in Teynham, Crest Nicholson Eastern in partnership with Hyde Housing Group are reinstating an orchard as part of its 10.5 acre development of 130 new homes units at Station Road in the village.

When it comes to the varieties planted, it doesn’t need to just be fruit trees. At Lyewood Farm, in Boughton Monchelsea, we secured permission for 85 houses on a former chicken Farm for Crest Nicholson and local eggs producers Fridays. It made the planting of a nut tree orchard, (known locally as platts – an answer to another possible quiz question) integral to the scheme as this was characteristic of the area.  In that instance there was no appetite locally to manage a community orchard, and this is a good example of other species that can work where extensive management is not required. 

‘Planning: create a predictable level playing field’ is the first of BBBC’s eight proposed reforms, and with it a desire to see beautiful placemaking legally enshrined within the planning system – and orchards are a small part of this mission.

We will be watching with interest how all the recommendations of BBBC play out with Government, as this one, like many of the others, could become a requirement of Local Plans and therefore planning policy – and impact on our current and future clients. 

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