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Cut to the Chase

Walking around Cedar Chase today, it quickly becomes obvious that all the houses have the same paint colours, the doors are all the same and the gardens all show the same taste for "architectural" planting. In fact, the houses themselves all look very much as they did when first built in 1966: trees and shrubs have softened the stark, newly-built look and some windows now have plastic frames but the overall unity of design is still there 40 years on.

It is reasonable to wonder how this has come about, as it is not the normal state of affairs for a 40-year-old housing estate. Are the houses perhaps owned by some powerful and reclusive landlord, or maybe the residence of some vast extended family, ruled by an iron matriach? The truth, of course, is less fanciful and involves a lot of hard work and diplomacy by many people over the years.

Span Estates was a very unusual property developer, which operated in the Home Counties from 1947 to 1978. They believed that there was a market for good, modern design, set in carefully designed landscapes. They "designed-in" a sense of community, and in that sense were legal pioneers as well as architectural ones: every Span estate has a residents' association charged with the maintenance of the grounds, external painting and generally keeping everything ticking along happily.

A row of Cedar Chase houses from the rear

In Cedar Chase, all the houses were originally leasehold, with Span as the freeholder making sure that everyone paid their share of the maintenance costs. This changed as a result of the 1967 Leasehold Reform Act, which threatened the unity of the estate by allowing people to buy out their freehold. Like all the other Span developments, Cedar Chase went through a difficult and expensive period culminating in the approval of a Scheme of Management by the High Court. This allowed the Residents' Society to enforce the collection of fees from freeholders, if necessary by blocking the sale of houses. Once the legal side was sorted out, all 24 houses contributed a substantial sum of money to buy out the freehold of the estate. As a result, the houses are now freehold (though it takes an alert conveyancer to spot that first time) and each household owns one share in the Society, which in turn owns all the communal ground.

The Society is a company (technically a Friendly Society) with all that implies: directors, formal accounts, AGMs and so on. Its major costs relate to the five acres of communal gardens and woodland, and to repainting all the houses every four years. This defines the planning cycle, and our treasurer Jane Curry keeps a detailed spreadsheet with estimates stretching forward over the next two cycles. This is updated every year and presented to the members at the AGM so that the fees for the coming year can be set at a suitable level to maintain the sinking fund.

The committee of the Society is also the board of directors, so the estate is controlled entirely by its residents. Everyone has a specific role and the names of these have passed into local idiom, so it is common to stop for a chat in the car park and be asked, "Are you Paths and Boundaries this year?"

There are no Utopian communities, so an important part of the Society's job is to act as mediator and to smooth ruffled feathers from time to time. It does not always get this right, and there have been some noisy arguments over the years, but on the whole it all works and the sense of community is very strong.

Andrew Findlay