26 November, Roadshow night in Aston. We arrived in plenty of time to find the village hall locked. Fifteen minutes, several phone calls and a few degrees of cold later, someone came from a house across the road to open up.
Altogether it was a very successful evening, supported by local ward councillor Paul Northcott and our faithful friend, erstwhile Aston resident and retired planner Ted Holland.
The aim of the Roadshows is to engage with residents, explain the purpose of the Neighbourhood Plan and the part they can play in it, and start them thinking about issues that affect them locally, ahead of the questionnaire in February. And, of course, to recruit more people to help with the work involved! Certainly we need some representation from Aston.
Aston is the most isolated of the Neighbourhood’s settlements. The residents feel that it is ‘special’ as a place to live. To outsiders it looks like a place with plenty of big, expensive houses. But it also needs accommodation that meets the needs of older, younger, disabled and otherwise less mobile people. And it needs housing for people who could be employed in local businesses and services.
Aston is the most isolated of the Neighbourhood’s settlements. That sentence is worth repeating. The winding, single-track lanes that connect it to the main roads are the same ones that local people used on foot and by cart 200 years ago – with the addition of a layer of asphalt.
The residents still go by foot in their lanes, which are also used by visitors who come by car to walk their dogs in the woods. Unlike 200 years ago, they now face a hazard from cars and large agricultural vehicles that drive too fast. The lanes are also popular with another group of road users: ‘Cyclists are a menace because you don’t hear them coming.’ Is there a case for creating ‘Quiet lanes’ here?
The nearest bus stop is at Blackbrook, 1.7 miles away, so to get the bus you need to go by car – although even 50 years ago some people would still have gone by foot. If Aston had an accessible bus service, would the residents use it, and where would they want it to go? Could the Neighbourhood Plan design a local bus service that people would really use?
Transport is definitely one of the biggest issues for this community, and it is inseparably connected to others.
Aston people value their environment above all else. That’s the reason why they live there, because the facilities and services could not be more limited: a well-used village hall, a letter box, limited mobile phone and broadband coverage. The post office closed several decades ago, there is no shop (although you can buy eggs at one of the farms) and the village school is no more than a memory preserved in the name of School Lane.
Access to shopping and services is difficult for older residents. Where you shop ‘depends on whether you want bread or meat’. People shop in Woore, Market Drayton, Nantwich, Newcastle.
The primary school children must go to school in Baldwins Gate, even though the school in Woore (Shropshire) is closer. Bureaucrats draw lines on maps that then become impenetrable barriers separating people from essential services.
Aston is a pretty good place to run a business – provided that it doesn’t grow, you have no employees and it doesn’t make too many demands on the internet. The lack of transport has forced one resident to move his business from Aston into Stoke because he can’t get people to come to work in Aston. ‘I could employ people here, but . . .’
Here we have a triple conundrum: there are no local jobs because the place is so isolated as to make them inaccessible; but equally, there are no people locally to work in the kinds of jobs that would be on offer; and the dwellings in Aston are not affordable by the people who would be employed by local businesses. This is not merely an economic problem, but a socio-economic problem.
Aston people value their environment above all else. That sentence is worth repeating too. But we have to share our environment with the 80% of the borough’s population that live in the urban area, because the rural area is the urban area’s real green space.
They come to Aston from the town to walk, to cycle and to ride horses. There is no longer a Sunday bus service, so they have to come by car – and the ones with no car can’t get here. There is nowhere for them to park and nowhere for them to get refreshment, and overuse by visitors will eventually damage the rural environment.
But we can welcome our urban visitors and protect the environment – by creating proper passing places in the lanes, providing proper parking facilities and having well-marked footpaths and bridleways. Our urban visitors can help the local economy by creating scope for new local businesses. And we need somehow to restore the Sunday bus service so that the carless can get out of town and enjoy our countryside.
Some sage advice
As ever, Ted Holland had some sage advice for us.
- We must work with adjoining Neighbourhood Areas.
- The viability of settlements is most important, which means improving existing facilities.
- Avoid polluting the brook.
- We need surfaced passing bays in the lanes.
- New housing should create Aston as a village, and not continue the linear form.
- Skilled employment facilities are needed in the village.
- We must use the Community Infrastructure Levy to fund the development of facilities.
We came home over Camp Hill. The lane is in a dreadful state. The banks have been carved up by the huge tractors that have replaced the carts and horses that used them even 60 years ago. The roadway is covered in mud and no one has cleaned it up.