You’ll be easily forgiven if you haven’t heard of Cranbrook, because five years ago this east Devon town was the fields that cornered the historical city of Exeter. Creating this new town has been one of the few attempts to address a national homelessness crisis, now affecting more than 50,000 households across England. Cranbrook is the first new settlement to be developed in Devon since the middle ages.
I grew up in Exeter, watching it blossom from a modest city into a vibrant hub. I’m proud to say that I have come from the liberal bastion of the south-west: it was one of only three constituencies in the region to vote remain, and has long been a Labour stronghold. However, nimbyism has intensified over fears around an “invasion of outsiders”, and of local services becoming overburdened. Cranbrook has felt the brunt of this, with locals demanding that more housing is built – but “not in my backyard”.
"The new town has even been branded as a magnet for unruly northerners and the crime capital of the south-west, renamed by some as 'Crimebrook'..."
The new town has even been branded as a magnet for unruly northerners and the crime capital of the south-west, renamed by some as “Crimebrook”, even though this is not borne out by police statistics. I remember such hostility circulating even before the first brick had been laid. Listeners to The Archers will be all too familiar with this depressing scenario: one current storyline includes growing opposition in Ambridge against the Bridge Farm housing development. Only Emma and Ed Grundy are in favour, it seems. How else can they hope to get a step on the housing ladder?
These nimbys, in real life, deepen the sense of otherness towards not only outsiders, but also to locals like myself who have been priced out of Exeter. The first phase of Cranbrook consisted of 1,120 homes, 40% of which were for social and affordable housing. Of the social housing available, 65% went to applicants with a local connection to east Devon, the other 35% going to local people in Exeter. The town has also received a £20m government investment, which has increased the development of social houses to 500 a year, accelerating Cranbrook’s ambition of expanding to 8,000 homes within the next decade or so.
Drawn to its location and lower house prices, Jacqui Issacs relocated her family to Cranbrook from Oxfordshire three years ago. “I find a much better sense of community here than I ever did in an established village,” she says. A report released earlier this year by the Devon & Cornwall police on the top crime hotspots within the county placed two of Exeter’s streets third and fourth, with one of Cranbrook’s streets ranked seventh. Issacs remarks: “I have never lived somewhere with so much within walking distance – the shops, the country park, pub and so on.”
"Nimbys see the town as soulless, but it just needs to be lived in a bit more..."
Unlike the feudal Disneyland of Prince Charles’s Poundbury in nearby Dorset, Cranbrook has no experimental aesthetic. Nimbys see the town as soulless, but it just needs to be lived in a bit more: Issacs is looking forward to “having our own high street one day”. As the town clerk, Janine Gardner, says, Cranbrook is “not to be seen merely as an extension of the nearby Exeter”. The 3,000 Cranbrook residents already have their own doctors, schools, shops and leisure centre. And the town is uniquely youthful, with a high percentage of 24 to 35-year-olds, who can propel such developments.
I now live in the multicultural mecca of London, and feel that Cranbrook could provide a much-needed point of diversity if given the chance. While it is important for the town to build valuable bridges with Exeter, outsiders should be welcomed as enhancing the existing cultural fabric, not unpicking it.
"Cranbrook is an opportunity not only to find a house, but also for us to make a home."
With average house prices almost seven times people’s incomes, becoming a homeowner, especially for people of my generation, is increasingly a fantasy, even in Devon. Cranbrook is an opportunity not only to find a house, but also for us to make a home.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Cranbrook has only just put down its foundations: the nimbys just need to give it the time to build itself up.