Where Tech Meets Sustainability: Inside the Innovation Village 

South Seaham Garden Village is a housing project that is set to provide an innovative blueprint for sustainable, inclusive garden city design. Patrick Kingsland speaks to IDPartnership’s Mark Massey, one of the architects behind the  project

All images credit: IDPartnership

When the Newcastle-based architecture firm IDPartnership does a public consultation on a project, it usually follows a familiar script: over the course of an afternoon, somewhere between 30 to 40 well-meaning, interested locals will pay a visit, less concerned by the specific details of the plan than the very fact that it is new.

But when the firm did the same thing in Murton, a village in County Durham, the response could not have been more different. The recent consultation concerned plans for a new, high-tech, socially inclusive, 1,500-home garden village in South Seaham, which will be constructed over the next 12 years and is expected to create 500 jobs.

Within 40 minutes of the consultation beginning, 485 members of the public had already come through the doors, each with a clear understanding of the concept of the project, their likes and dislikes, aims and aspirations.

“It was remarkable,” says Mark Massey, senior partner at IDPartnership.

An inclusive approach

It was also hardly surprising. Seaham, a harbour town on the Durham Coast has a rich mining history that was featured in the famous 2000 film Billy Elliot. The town’s last pit – the Vane Tempest colliery – was closed in 1993 but strong community values have prevailed ever since.

“We are in an environment where people talk to each other and are involved in community affairs,” says Massey. “South Seaham was foremost in the labour movement and the people are very aware of their politics and culture.”

“ The housing market doesn't really acknowledge the fact that when you have had your children and they have gone on to college you are an empty nest. 

For Massey, it was the project’s emphasis on community inclusiveness that drew in the crowds and meant its plans were “welcomed with open arms”. While most volume house builders, for example, are interested in buying two, three and four bedroom houses that exclude those trying to get onto the ladder, “this project will be looking at people at the starter end of the housing market equally,” Massey says.

At the other end of the market, the elderly are also rarely catered for – a major contributing factor behind the 1.4 million chronically lonely older people that exist in England, according to the charity Age UK. Tackling this problem is another major feature of the South Seaham project according to Massey.

“The housing market doesn't really acknowledge the fact that when you have had your children and they have gone on to college you are an empty nest,” he says.

“We have got an awful lot of people sitting in their familial home because there is nowhere for them to retire to. And as a result there is a lot of loneliness and houses that do not get recycled to young families that are starting up.”

Together with the Newcastle University-based National Innovation Centre for Ageing, the South Seaham garden village project will create supported accommodation schemes that trial a range of assistive and digital technologies to keep the elderly healthy, safe, active and happy.

“We think the location where that is most likely to happen is in the authentic centre of the village rather than out on the periphery as is so often the case,” says Massey.

“A place that is brimming with life, where positive stuff is happening and which gives opportunities for all people in the village, young and old, to come together.”

Green space

Unlike garden villages in the private sector that tend to develop as much land as possible, Massey says the South Seaham project – which uses land value capture – will offer an abundance of green space.

“We are developing only half of the 200 acre site,” he says.

“ We will have 100 acres of green space with pathways, jogging tracks, play trails, outdoor school spaces, and general sitting and viewing spots. 

“That means we will have 100 acres of green space with pathways, jogging tracks, play trails, outdoor school spaces, and general sitting and viewing spots. We have also got allotment spaces for outdoor activities, and a winter garden for singing, poetry, theatre and celebrating community achievements.”

The scheme has been developed using the criteria laid out by the the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) and was influenced by the garden city movement, first initiated in the UK in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard. Though work on South Seaham began before the UK government announced plans last year for a string of new garden towns and villages, Massey says it has since been submitted for consideration.

“We have a current application for this to be registered as a garden village,” he says. “Whether or not it is accepted I believe it will be one of the most advanced garden villages that is going to be delivered in close relation to the TCPA guidelines.”

Community focus

The scheme was given outline planning approval in late November with building work expected to commence between December next year and January 2020. While there is a long way to go, Massey expects the vision being presented of “a garden village for all ages” will keep the local community engaged and excited.

“I was told by my grandfather that a community is defined by how it looks after those people least able to look after themselves,” he says.

“Our garden village is about rediscovering that sense of community responsibility, looking after people, and getting people to come together.”