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Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Town and Country Planning Association (NT 13)


  1.1  The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) is a registered educational charity, supported by a voluntary membership drawn from development agencies, local government, environmental organisations, community groups, and individuals with an interest in planning (including elected members of local planning authorities, chartered town planners, and members of other built environment professions).

  1.2  The TCPA was involved in the genesis of Letchworth (1903) and Welwyn (1919) Garden Cities. The Association played a major role in the campaigns leading to the New Towns Act 1946 and in the subsequent government-sponsored programme of new towns in the UK which are now home to more than two million people.

  1.3  The Association has maintained a particular interest and expertise in the arrangements for creating new towns, in their design and development, in their long term management and maintenance, and in their future role in urban policy. The Association is acknowledged internationally for its expertise in new town planning and development, and has been consistent in its advocacy of the potential role of new towns as part of a portfolio of planned responses to growth and change in city regions.

  1.4  This memorandum is focused on the five questions in the Press Notice of 22 January, within the stipulated limit of six A4 pages. The TCPA requests the opportunity to appear before the Sub-Committee. Evidence would be presented by three distinguished witnesses Wyndham Thomas CBE[1], David Lock[2] and Lee Shostak[3].

  2.  "The extent to which the original design of the New Towns is leading to concerns about their long term sustainability, in particular the effect of their design on urban management, how car dependence might be reduced and the balance between new development and the regeneration of older parts of towns."

  2.1  The New Towns have not been built to a single design, but most have created a pattern of residential neighbourhoods, around a town centre, with discrete industrial/commercial estates. The first houses in the first wave of new towns started in 1947-51 were built to good space standards which were severely reduced in the early 1950s in pursuit of Macmillan's target of 300,000 public rented house completions a year.

  2.2  Densities were sharply increased, floor space was cut by up to 20 per cent, cupboards and other fittings excluded, poor-quality panels substituted for brickwork, and screen walls and timber fences replaced with chain-link fencing. Narrow (12 to 14 feet—3.5m to 4.5m) terraced housing became standard, and gardens and all external spaces were reduced. The TCPA protested strongly against this policy and its obvious consequences. Protest was in vain, against the determination of Ministers and the Treasury and, most regrettably, the influential advocacy of many prominent architects and architectural journalists.

  2.3  Some New Towns did not escape the high-rise fashion that was taken up in cities and towns everywhere, despite increased cost in construction and maintenance, harm to family life for those on low incomes, harmful environmental impact, and little of the promised saving of land. This policy has now come to its awful accounting. From the 1950s the TCPA stood alone against this policy, but even we failed to see just how dreadful its consequences would be.

  2.4  In common with similar estates in ordinary towns developed over the same period, these early housing areas in the older New Towns are badly in need of enlightened renewal or total redevelopment. As in ordinary places, local authorities should be encouraged to make comprehensive action plans enabling cross subsidy from viable mixed use redevelopment, and to seek financial contributions from new development through planning obligations. They also need greater support through the Housing Corporation for the affordable housing components of such plans.

  2.5  The effect of the design of each New Town on urban management requires definition of the concept of "urban management" and a separate study in each case. The same applies to the remainder of the point raised by the Sub-Committee it is not evident that the New Towns, taken together, face special physical or financial challenges when compared with most long-established towns of comparable size, location and character. A comparative study of several towns, old and new, would be the best way to establish whether most or all of the new towns are especially handicapped and whether, if so, they need special financial assistance.

  2.6  We doubt that the new towns are more "car-dependent" than old towns of comparable size. The comparative study we propose could consider old town/New Town differences and similarities in this private/public transport context in order to establish whether the New Towns face special problems. Our suspicion is that the New Towns are especially well structured to adapt to more sustainable ways of life. Undoubtedly they are "laboratories" of the best professional and technical practice of their period, and their master planning features should be analysed and lessons to be learned should be widely promoted.

  3.  "Whether social exclusion in the New Towns is being exacerbated by the current Government approach to regeneration and neighbourhood renewal, in particular in relation to small pockets of deprivation."

  3.1  It is not established that social exclusion in the New Towns is more or less extensive than in ordinary places. The Association's observation is that the New Towns generally achieved their objective of accommodating all varieties of household, and those most in need of a home and a job in particular. Because of the care taken in the building of the New Towns, especially management of a careful balance between growth of housing and jobs, the incidence of social exclusion and deprivation is less likely than in most ordinary towns, but requires attention nevertheless.

  3.2  Prejudice against the New Towns may have disadvantaged them in bidding for money under various Government programmes, but they have not been totally excluded and there are even more hopeful signs the Regeneration Company that has been established in Corby, for example, is an encouraging indication that the New Towns are now "normalised". English Partnerships' role in New Town regeneration partnerships and programmes is especially appreciated if the Treasury has relaxed its cash demands from EP to enable such activity, their move is most welcome.

  3.3  Successive Governments are attracted to area-based regeneration programmes, in the New Towns as elsewhere. In this connection the Association would prefer to see as much focus on tackling the underlying causes of poverty and social dysfunction, as on smartening up the geographical areas in which disadvantaged people happen to be concentrated. Sometimes a new life chance comes from being set free from a location the New Towns themselves provided such opportunities for many. Today such opportunities barely exist.

  4.  "Issues relating to the organisations and regulations operating in the New Towns, in particular the consequences of English Partnerships' control of the land supply and its role in the planning system; the effect of the transfer of assets and liabilities to local authorities; and the role of local authorities, residuary bodies and non-Departmental Public Bodies in promoting sustainable regeneration in the New Towns."

  4.1  These issues appear to us to be at the heart of the New Town local authorities' criticisms and proposals. The Commission for the New Towns inherited from the development corporations land with the equivalent of outline planning consent, granted by the Minister. In most New Towns these consents have been—or will soon be—fully implemented. Substantial land holdings remain (now with English Partnerships acting on behalf of CNT) in five or six towns only. No information is published indicating how much of the remaining land in each town is covered by long-standing consents and how much is not. It would be helpful to know this it is the sale of land by EP for development that would not satisfy today's planning policy framework, and the promotion by EP of the unconsented land, that are known sometimes to be an irritation to the local planning authority.

  4.2  There is good reason now to review the full extent of EP's land ownership in each New Town, and the planning status of each defined parcel of land in the context of national and regional planning guidance and the statutory development plan for the area. This is necessary before conclusions could be drawn about the future ownership of such land. The review panel could include representatives of the local authorities and EP, the regional planning body, and perhaps some independent experts. The decisions to be made are best be reserved to the Minister.

  4.3  The terms of land transfers from EP to New Town local authorities should also be reviewed. In situations where EP is opening large new areas for development—requiring services beyond the taxpayers' initial investment in the New Town, we see no reason why EP should be excused the same planning obligations as any other landowner seeking to develop an estate. Clawback clauses to safeguard the interests of the taxpayers are reasonable, but must be capable of waiver (as is already occasionally the case on an exceptions-only basis) if their existence obstructs sustainable forms of redevelopment on the site.

  4.4  In those rare cases in which EP is managing very extensive areas of undeveloped land in successful New Towns subject to further growth pressures—Milton Keynes being conspicuous in this regard—we see EP and other stakeholders including the local authority participating in some form of partnership to secure orderly and sustainable development in the best traditions of New Town building.

  4.5  Most properties with no commercial value have already been transferred as "community-related assets", together with packages of money and/or income-producing property to prevent "an undue burden" falling on council tax payers.

  4.6  A question which seems to arise is whether New Town local authorities should gain financial support for regeneration from EP's trading profits. We incline to the view that New Town councils should continue to be treated in the same way as all others only if their regeneration problems were clearly attributable to the New Town development standards and patterns employed, and made disproportionately costly in consequence, would there be a case for additional subventions from EP. There is loose talk of "very low densities" and other generic criticisms of New Towns, from which exceptionally heavy cost burdens allegedly arise, but specific cases founded on the results of comparative studies with ordinary towns must be made.

  4.7  Here it may be appropriate to recall the discussion of first principles which took place in 1959-61 over the proposal to set up the Commission for the New Towns. Its task, which was not changed until the first Thatcher Government took over in 1979, was simply to manage and turn to account in completing the town the assets taken over on winding up each development corporation. Only after 1979 was it turned into a revenue-raising exercise for the Exchequer. A principal reason advanced for not passing the commercial assets to the local authorities was that the cost of building the towns—all the loans, all the losses and all the risk—was borne by the national taxpayers. In equity, therefore, the taxpayer should benefit from any gains—which would (though indirectly) help meet the central costs of extensive and expensive urban regeneration throughout the country.

  4.8  Even so, establishing the Commission was seen as a transitional arrangement, allowing time and changing circumstance to clarify what final ownership, management and distribution arrangements would be best. Now 40 years on, the £4.75 billion of Exchequer 60 year loans has largely been repaid from CNT asset sales, and sale of the remaining assets should cover most or all of the rest. Disparities and inequities that continue to exist—between New Towns in the poorer and the richer regions, between New Towns and old industrial towns, and between national and local taxpayers' interests—require resolution by other levers of public policy.

  5.  "The role of the New Towns in their regional economies, in both the industrial/commercial and housing markets and their effects on surrounding conurbations."

  5.1  The Sub-Committee will be aware that, with the exception of New Towns such as Newtown in Wales which were designed to retain population in an area from which people were departing for the cities, the New Towns were mostly designed to provide relief for overcrowded conurbations and, by careful planning and design, to provide new life chances for those that today would be called the socially excluded.

  5.2  The success of the New Towns in this regard is less than might have been hoped for. In the South East, for example, by the mid 1970s only some 17 per cent of the people that had left London since 1947 had found a home in the region's New Towns. Of these, the last and the largest is Milton Keynes, which has been the region's most important strategic growth point for the past 30 years, and has saved much of the Metropolitan Green Belt in its sector from development pressure over that period. Yet even with 200,000 residents, Milton Keynes' contribution to accommodating growth spilling out of Greater London has been relatively modest.

  5.3  It should also be noted that even though the New Towns programme is practically complete, the scale of migration of people and employment from Greater London has shown no significant diminution. The New Towns, evidently, were neither the cause of the evacuation of London's population or employment base, nor the major recipient of it.

  5.4  Unlike the rest of the South East, however, the region's New Towns provided a new life chance for a disproportionately high number of the socially excluded.

  5.5  There is controversy over the evidence concerning the migration of employment. Some analyses support an argument that the New Towns attracted from their "parent" conurbations some successful companies that would otherwise have grown where they were. Other evidence suggests that if the New Towns had not been available, such employment would not have grown at all, or would have found a non-New Town location in the outfield of the region, or moved overseas.

  5.6  What is certain, is that the New Towns proved themselves to be ideal growth points for many companies, with their offer of room for growth and a ready supply of locally based, healthy and willing labour. For the region as a whole, and for the nation, the New Towns have proved to be important platforms of economic development and wealth creation.

  5.7  In summary, therefore, it is the assessment of the Association that the New Towns have proved to be the most valuable and effective way of accommodating a proportion of the growth unwilling or unable to be accommodated in the older towns and cities.

  5.8  Their performance as recipients of this growth is obviously superior to those areas which were subject to "unplanned" growth over the same period a comparison between Milton Keynes and what was called "Growth Area 8" (the Wokingham area), both of which have received roughly the same scale of development over the same number of years, might be expected to prove the superiority of the New Town policy as a tool in urban growth management from every point of view.

  5.9  Government planning policy guidance appears to be in denial of this truth. The possibility of a New Town (euphemistically described in policy documents as a "new settlement") is ranked last in possibilities to be examined in the sequential approach to the allocation of land for necessary development. No further government-sponsored New Towns are currently planned.

  5.10  Current sub-regional studies are briefed only to produce "options" for what is likely to be incremental growth managed by "business as usual" local planning processes assisted, if possible, by vaguely formulated stakeholder partnerships. The studies are briefed explicitly not to recommend a strategic plan or any other form of long term development framework and implementation mechanism for the area growth area, thus excluding consideration of the government-sponsored New Town option.

  5.11  Having become established, the New Towns generally provide a sub-regional focus for their catchments in terms of local services, employment, housing, and cultural activity. In that sense they service and sustain a hinterland of predominantly rural development. In sub-regions with growth pressures, the New Towns' relatively modern infrastructure and attractive layout are making them ideal receptors for investment in high tech employment and quality housing, spurring major redevelopment schemes for their town centres. Bracknell is a case in point.

  6.  "Whether the Government should change its policy in respect of design, regeneration and social inclusion in the New Towns."

  6.1  The Association is keen to discover Government policy that specifically applies to the new towns in these respects. We have referred to the importance for the pursuit of sustainable development of comparative research, New Towns and ordinary towns. We have alluded to the need for comparative research, New Towns and ordinary areas that have received growth of strategic significance (Milton Keynes and the former "Growth Area 8"). We seek the factual basis of assertions that the New Towns are exceptional in terms of the need for regeneration and problems of social inclusion.

  6.2  The Association urges the Sub-Committee to press for the DTLR Planning Research budget to assist these important lines of enquiry.

1   TCPA Vice President, formerly Chief Executive Peterborough Development Corporation, Board Member London Docklands Development Corporation, Board Member Commission for the New Towns, and Board Member, Land Commission. Back

2   TCPA Chair, Director of planning and urban design consultancy David Lock Associates, formerly Planning Manager Milton Keynes Development Corporation, and Chief Planning Adviser Department of the Environment. Back

3   TCPA Trustee, Director of economic development consultancy Shared Intelligence, formerly Planning Director Milton Keynes Development Corporation, and Director of EDAW planning and economic development consultancy. Back

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