top of page
  • Writer's pictureOur Green Warrington

Interview with The Wintles' founder, Bob Tomlinson

Updated: Feb 11, 2021

The Wintles, Shropshire

We at Our Green Warrington are big fans of the work of The Living Village Trust and in particular, its masterpiece, The Wintles - a modern, eco-friendly but also beautiful settlement in Bishop's Castle, Shropshire. Described as "Britain's happiest eco town", Bob Tomlinson and his colleagues at The Living Village Trust created a community led village that is not only aesthetically delightful but is also considerate of its surrounding environment.

Bob very kindly agreed to answer some questions from the Our Green Warrington team. To say that we were thrilled he responded is a something of an understatement.

How did you come to found The Living Village Trust? 

To try and show by example how better places could be built instead of what the house-builders were providing. At first this was a campaign to improve the technical specification of the buildings to make them more ‘eco’ but we soon realised that the more important part of the story is how people use the buildings. The Living Village Trust creates beautiful places for people to live using the principles of Christopher Alexander's pattern language. Can you tell us what these principles are and explain the difference between building to this doctrine and that which is employed by most housing developers in the UK?

Most house-builders’ objectives are to maximise profit. In effect this is done largely through the planning process as the biggest part of their profit is from the uplift in land value, rather than the building process itself. Building to them represents a risk, so to minimise this risk they like to build as cheaply as possible to tried and tested formulas that are as simple as possible. We just set out to build somewhere that is as good as the community in which it originates. Starting out from scratch on this is very daunting so the sequence of patterns in Christopher Alexander’s book provided us with a starting point and structure for the design of The Wintles. Of course, A Pattern Language is just concerned with the relationships between humans and buildings and so is very different from the profit fundamentals used by house-builders. One of your most well known projects is The Wintles in Shropshire. This was a remarkable achievement and is truly a stunning place to live. How did this project come about and how was it finally realised? 

Before starting on The Wintles we had built five eco-houses behind the Six Bells pub in Bishop's Castle. The pub had been bought with the support of a local benefactor after I had presented my proposals for an eco-village in South Shropshire to the planning department in Ludlow. They quite clearly told me that proposals for an eco-village were a nonstarter but maybe improving the sustainability of an existing place might be a better place to start, hence bringing the local pub back to life and building the eco-houses at the back instead of a new eco-village. Because of this I was discussing planning matters with the local planners and complained that they weren’t putting any conditions to be more ‘eco’ or ‘local’ in vernacular on the application being put in by the land owner for The Wintles. Their response was that they had no control over this and that if I wanted to do something about it then we should buy the land. And so we did, and built The Wintles, which is pretty much the ‘eco-village’ that was laughed at by the planners in the first instance.

The Wintles

What are you currently working on? 

Several sites are being worked with land owners who like what we do in getting sites ready for planning, though getting finance for ‘eco-build’ is very difficult. Although we have proved that building a better, more beautiful place to live actually deliverers a premium per square foot, finance for construction is very archaic.   At the Future Homes Conference you discussed some of the current styles and configurations used by larger developers in much of their new housing provision. The themes you identified with large housing developments seem to be universal across the UK; bland, often poorly designed homes placed closely together; heavy reliance on car use and therefore overemphasis on car parking space; lack of walkable, characterful streets; networks of confusing culs de sac with no community core and too few trees and green spaces. Why do you think developers continue to choose this pattern of housing development when so many criticise it?

It suits them because they have the workforce and tried and tested designs. Ideally they would prefer to roll out the same product all the time because this is less risk. Also, there is no effective competition. If the builder controls the land supply then you, as the customer, have to buy whatever they build if you want to live in that area, and so choice is very limited and the builder can control the supply by phasing the development to restrict the market. People clearly prefer to live in places as you describe above, and, in any given area, neighbourhoods that have those things will be more expensive than new estates that don’t - but the builders' business model is to build as cheaply as possible and so cut out any extras whenever possible. Local Authority highways departments also have a lot to answer for as they have a very … let’s say, ‘traditionalist’ view on vehicle movements being more important than human beings’ well-being.

The Wintles

A recent national housing audit by UCL found that three quarters of houses constructed by large builders are of "mediocre" or "poor" design, with one in five so bad "they should never have been given planning permission". Why are developers consistently failing in this regard? Is it a lack of imagination or simply a desire to maximise profits at the expense of design? And why do developers seem unconcerned about their professional reputation?

Desire to maximise profit and minimise design costs. Most developers don’t employ architects or designers, they roll out the same house-type from area to area. You only have to see some of the comments about the Building Better, Building Beautiful Report from house-builders to see that they don’t care about their reputation; they are making extremely large amounts of money doing what they do and are completely unconcerned about their reputation. To what extent are councils and local authorities complicit in these soulless housing estates being built, often to much protest from residents? Are you satisfied that there is sufficient local democracy in the planning phase of new developments? What can local communities do to change attitudes?

Local authorities are pretty powerless due to lack of funds and staff to fight a house-builder application. The planning process has degenerated into a legal battle focusing on the small print in the local plan as a way of trying to get the house-builder to deliver something decent, but there are no resources to look at improving design or facilities. Local communities can protest, but the highly paid planning lawyers easily circumnavigate any home grown objections. Delays in planning can cost a lot, but the developers just use this as an excuse to degrade the design and specification of the scheme. In fact research shows that most communities would support appropriate and well designed new developments in their localities, but the developers have so much power they don’t need to listen. A report called "Living with Beauty" was published in January 2020 by a Commission called Building Better, Building Beautiful, appointed by the government to review planning policy and our built environment - which you will no doubt have read. It places an emphasis on creating more beautiful housing and the rejection of ugly buildings. The report says that, "ugly buildings present a social cost that everyone is forced to bear. They destroy the sense of place, undermine the spirit of community and ensure that we are not at home in our world", whereas in comparison, "beauty includes everything that promotes a healthy and happy life, everything that makes a collection of buildings into a place, everything that turns anywhere into somewhere, and nowhere into home. It is not merely a visual characteristic, but is revealed in the deep harmony between a place and those who settle there. So understood, beauty should be an essential condition for planning permission."  Why did this report need to be commissioned, do you think? What link do you see between good aesthetics in our surroundings and our mental and physical wellbeing? 

Although it seems to be such common sense, there isn’t a great deal of research into how ‘places’ affect us very profoundly. There are studies about things like ‘sick building syndrome’ but not much on ‘sick places’. One book called 'Welcome to Your World' by Sarah Williams Goldhagen is a fascinating and compelling study of the effects of our built environment, but these elements are very rarely considered in urban design. The problem with the word ‘beauty’ is that it is very subjective, so everyone has an opinion and this makes it very difficult to include as a condition. Fans of Brutalism, for example, may have very different values to fans of the higgledy piggledy villages. One problem may be that usually the committees who consider these things are drawn from the architectural and urbanism disciplines and therefore have different views from the ordinary person in the street.

What would you say to the argument that it is all very well to demand beauty, but it costs too much, or that local authorities don't have sufficient finance to prioritise such things? 

I’ll just quote Yolande Barnes when she was at Savills on this. “Pretty sells”. So there is no excuse on cost/reward terms. Is it possible to build beautiful, affordable homes? How achievable is this in dense urban areas where there is a need for a lot of housing?

Beauty and density go hand in hand; look at any ancient hill town or organically evolved settlement. Affordability is largely determined by the land price, so increasing density improves affordability and CAN deliver beauty, but it needs to be very carefully managed and delivered. A tower block doesn’t do it, an Italian hill town does. Can we build housing that is environmentally sustainable but still attractive?

Big subject. The most environmentally sustainable house would possibly be a cob cottage with a thatch roof, all sourced locally and hand built by the occupant. Beautiful, and cheap as chips. Though the real issue again is land cost for affordability, good design, efficient delivery and sensible specification means that there is no ‘sustainability’ barrier to being attractive. It has become clear that during the pandemic access to green space, the countryside and nature have been a lifeline for many. How important are green spaces in towns and urban areas and how do we do more to protect / improve them? Do you think we are at a pivotal point in terms of opportunity to reassess our priorities and take action to change things, or do you think it will be a return to "business as usual" in the end. How can local communities stop that happening?

Unfortunately it looks like the knee jerk political response to Covid is to "build, build, build" and b*gger the quality! The Bosco Verticale created in Milan is a remarkable feat of "greening up" what would otherwise be generic blocks of flats in a city. How important is it for everyone to have sufficient private green outside space belonging to their own home? This should surely be a goal for all future planning and development, even in high density areas and apartment blocks - is it beyond achievable?

Sorry to be a cynic but very few of these sorts of scheme last the test of time. Quick fixes for tower blocks look good on the computer generated images but less good in reality. Compare the Bosco Verticale to old streets in Brera around the botanical gardens for example; I know where I would rather live, which is all about meeting people on the street, using the local shops and cafés, sitting in a shaded colonnade chatting with friends. What makes somewhere a successful and happy place to live?

People. "Place" either encourages or discourages community depending on how it is built. (I didn’t say ‘designed’ because many of the best places weren’t designed, they just happened as people built themselves.

Bob Tomlinson is a founder and director of The Living Village Trust.

You can read more about the collaborative, community led approach taken by

The Living Village Trust in the development of new homes and settlements here

You can also watch Bob Tomlinson's fascinating talk on the issues with modern developers and the need to create homes with a sense of place here

For more information about Christopher Alexander's Pattern Language follow this link.

82 views0 comments


bottom of page