Contrary to a recent letter in these pages (The price of Tory cuts, March 16, 2021), Watford hasn’t become a soulless place with no character. Not yet anyway.

One of the few positive things about lockdown was the opportunity to explore new parts of Watford through daily walks. I made some great discoveries walking through Central and West Watford, Nascot, Garston and Meriden, turning onto an intriguing row of houses, or appreciating a distinctive street scene.

These things are aspects of what is called character, and Watford is packed full of it, from late 19th century terraces to turn-of-the-century arts and crafts areas and select 20th century additions. There’s even some good 21st century stuff.

Surprisingly, given the ongoing deluge of dreadful development, character is well protected in Watford’s planning policies. In the current local plan, area ‘character’ is mentioned 53 times. And there’s the ‘Watford Character of Area Study’, an insightful planning document that categorises and clarifies the town’s distinct areas.

Watford’s character is what we treasure most about the town, but it’s an obstruction for developers who want to build bland, inappropriate blocks of flats, and Watford’s planning office, who feel under pressure to permit them and so avoid losing their decision-making to central government.

The proposed seven-storey 57-flat block in Monmouth Road, which would replace arts and crafts homes in a Victorian enclave, is one such example. No, it wouldn’t remotely reflect the area’s character. It’d be like Mr Blobby in a production of Hamlet. Thanks to conscientious development management committee members planning permission was refused in May 2020, despite it being recommended for approval by the planning office in contravention of their own policy (UD1 if you’re interested). The developer has appealed and a decision is imminent.

There is worrying evidence that the recommendation to approve the Monmouth Road application is no flash in the pan. Although Watford’s final draft local plan, setting out future development policy (consultation closed in March) mentions ‘character’ 86 times, there is no reference whatsoever to the ‘Character of Area Study’ which describes what that character actually is.

The head of planning has assured me that just because the character study is not named does not mean it isn’t valid. So why is it named in the current local plan? Why are other planning documents named in the new plan but not the character study? And in the absence of specifically named planning guidance, who is likely to benefit from the resulting ambiguity? The question hardly needs answering. The character study must be reinstated until such time as a replacement is available.

Just because Watford’s distinctive character is an obstruction to developers does not mean the council should abandon their civic duty to safeguard it. Our newly re-elected council has an opportunity to show us how they will protect and improve Watford for residents and businesses. Because when it’s gone, it’s gone. And that would be quite a legacy.

Tom Harper

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