Opinion: Is your new build dream home, like mine in Wixams, giving you depression?

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Wixams from The Causeway. Image: Google Maps Oct 2022
Wixams from The Causeway. Image: Google Maps Oct 2022

As some of our readers will know, Wixams is a relatively new housing development and parish located just outside of the main town of Bedford.

It boasts lakes and vibrant brightly coloured houses and it has just been given the go-ahead to have its own train station.

However, despite the fact that the estate has thousands of people living there, the lack of infrastructure and amenities has become a common and intense talking point between residents and local councillors for years.

The new town has been promised a GP surgery, a library, a large supermarket, jobs, a café and a public house.

Today Wixams has a small Co-op and two takeaways.

The lack of a town centre is making many people like myself feel isolated, lonely and in some cases depressed.

I approached the local authority and was disheartened to realise that the town centre may still be many years away. I also felt the tone of the reply was not overly sympathetic to the plight of people like myself.

I was told that the mythical Wixams town centre would be situated in Village 3 of 4 villages and that each of the villages is located in either Bedford Borough or Central Bedfordshire.

I was told that Wixams had been developed to a special design code and that a draft of the proposed amenities had been submitted to both local authorities. There was no mention of how long ago this was done.

Even more frustrating the email went on to say that there still needs to be a public consultation and that this may not necessarily be imminent. It seems disturbing to me that not even the local authority knows when the amenities that were promised will materialise.

Local people’s views

Don Beech is a student who moved here during the pandemic because their parents moved house in late 2019/early 2020. They feel isolated but admit that may be because he came here directly from a busy city.

“When I returned from uni, I was in a place I was unfamiliar with so I think my isolation story is a bit biased as I moved from Bath with loads going on for me plus friends,” they said.

Meanwhile. Laura Colella, who is on maternity leave, says not being able to drive and reach the places many of us take for granted is affecting her mental health.

She told me, “[I] have been on maternity leave for the past eight months, don’t drive at the moment, and having no nice cafes, restaurants, even a big supermarket, etcetera around, walking distance did affect my mental health a lot.”

Iris Wilson says she has a ‘love/hate’ relationship with Wixams.

“I love living here but am tempted to move,” she said.

“We have a rubbish bus service, you can’t even rely on them for appointments, it’s a very isolated place to live, I remember when the ads for Wixams when it was being built promised a self-contained town, with health service, shops.”

Silvana Volpe, who moved from London, also has mixed feelings about her home. “We moved here one year ago, coming from busy London and tbh we love it here, we love peace and quiet all the time, but … sometimes we feel lonely and I might say, depressed.”

I spoke to Barratt Homes and L&Q Estates, the developers.

Managing Director Adrian Clack of L&Q Estates told me, “We have been working closely with both Bedford Borough Council and Central Bedfordshire to progress the retail space and town centre.

“Once planning consent is granted, work will commence to provide further facilities for all residents of Wixams to enjoy.”

Mr. Clack’s comments left me unconvinced that the promised facilities were imminent.

Speaking to a town planner with over twenty-five years worth of experience it became clear that there is a connection between good urban design and good mental health.

“Good design can amaze, poor design can craze,” she said.

“Mounting evidence demonstrates the effect places can have on health, including mental health.

“Poorly equipped places can frustrate, limit health opportunities, dramatically increase stress and erode a sense of community, all of which reduce positive mental health outcomes.

“Conversely, small design interventions, such as making communities walkable and facilities available to all, need not cost much but can pay dividends in terms of mental (and overall) health.”

A similar station to this is proposed at Wixams. Image: Bedford Borough Council

Building For Life

Barratt Homes and David Wilson Homes are building 2,025 homes at Willow Grove in Wixams.

Their spokesperson defended their plans, stating that Barratt and David Wilson Homes “put great emphasis on the design” of their developments, “including criteria that support physical and mental wellbeing.”

They said, “We have our own in-house design criteria called Great Places that utilises the Building for Life code.”

I was curious about the Building For Life code which today is now called Building For A Healthy Life Code. This is a scheme where builders are obligated to create homes which are supposed to be good for people and for the natural environment.

“The new name also recognises that this latest edition has been written in partnership with Homes England, NHS England and NHS Improvement. BHL integrates the findings of the three-year Healthy New Towns Programme led by NHS England and NHS Improvement.

So it is clear that a lot of thought went into building the Wixams but the tone of the place, to me at least is dystopian.

There is only so much concrete that a person can take, why are there no lush front lawns and big beautiful gardens and trees all the things that humans and nature need?

A reply that I received from Cllr Mary Walsh (Independent, Toddington), Executive Member for Planning and Development for Central Bedfordshire Council made for gloomy reading.

How could it be that after so many years residents in Wixams are still no closer to having a town centre?

Mental health

Cllr Walsh said: “The developer has recently submitted a Design Code for the Town Centre (application reference CB/22/03375/DOC) which is currently out to consultation with the local community.

“Once approved, the Design Code will set out the guiding principles (for example in terms of land uses, design, appearance and landscaping) for the reserved matters applications to comply with, in relation to the amenities within the Town Centre.”

However, the Chair of Central Bedfordshire Council’s Development Management Committee, Cllr Gareth Mackey (Independent, Flitwick) had a more hopeful tone when I spoke to him.

“Quality of life and mental health are connected at a fundamental level. It is vital that amenities and infrastructure keep pace with growing communities to allow them to flourish,” he said.

What was particularly interesting about my research into Wixams was how many councillors agreed with local residents that the lack of town centre especially amenities, such as a GP surgery was making life unbearable for a great many people.

So, I wondered who had the power to make the decisions that would transform Wixams.

Cllr Graeme Coombs (Conservative) is the Wixams and Wilstead Councillor and finance portfolio holder in the Mayor’s new cabinet.

He said: “The great vision for Wixams as a new sustainable development, that was outlined many years ago, just hasn’t materialised.

“All of this has taken its toll and I can well understand how it would impact people’s mental health and well-being.

“What if you’re not feeling great and have to see your GP that’s miles away, especially if you have to get there on that bus that doesn’t show up? How does all of this collectively impact your state of mind?

“The station is over 10 years late, we still don’t have a local GP, schools are full to bursting, traffic is chaotic and we’ve now got a vast series of warehouses built, attracting an endless stream of HGVs to our roads.”

Cllr Graeme Coombes
Cllr Graeme Coombes (Conservative, Wixams & Wilstead)

Developments

As we publish this article, there have been developments in regard to the future of the Wixams in connection to a Section 106 legal agreement.

This agreement is made between the local authority and the developer and ‘ensures certain works relating to approved planning permission are undertaken or financial contributions are secured to offset the impact of the approved development on surrounding communities’.

In the original vision of Wixams, each village of the four was supposed to have identical amenities, such as a village hall, retail units, a local shop, and recycling points.

In the past, a library, a multi-faith centre, and units for start-up businesses were also included, but these have been removed from the agreement.

Locals have also received through the post a leaflet saying that Aldi wants to build a distribution centre here.

This is far from the idyllic vision that the house builders sold to Wixams’ new residents.

This has angered resident Julian Alden-Salter who told me he feels only drastic action may get local people’s views heard.

“I’ve given up as nothing changes,” he said. “I suspect the only way we’ll get change is by supergluing ourselves to the roads ‘Stop Oil’ style and blocking any development until promised facilities are made good.

“Actually, supergluing yourself to the council planners and other officials’ houses, cars, etc. might actually address the root of this corruption.”

On the Wixams community Facebook site, there are many posts made by angry residents trying to encourage the entire community to rebel and take a stance on the state of the villages we live in.

These posts are always very hotly debated with numerous comments to the point that it’s hard to keep up.

My future in Wixams

There are many nights when I lie awake dreaming of London transport, how smoothly it operates and how well-planned our country’s capital is.

When Howard Shultz, former CEO of Starbucks was developing the Starbucks brand, he sought direction from famous American writer Ray Oldenburg’s research, The Great Good Place.

Described as an eloquent, visionary and compelling argument for the settings of informal public life, Oldenburg’s research advises that ‘a community cannot be a community without places where people can meet each other and gather.’

If only those behind Wixams had done the same. Perhaps then Wixams would not have been so badly designed from inception.