Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by English Partnerships (NT 25)


  1.  English Partnerships welcomes the chance to set out our previous and potential roles in the new towns and to explain how by re-focusing our activity we can deliver better development and renewal. We believe that the concept of "new towns" as a distinct class of local government should end. Future Government policy should instead concentrate on areas where increases in household growth in the next twenty years can be accommodated in well designed and energy efficient communities.

  2.  Some of the former new towns will have a role in this, but others will not. English Partnerships' contribution should take a new form, more appropriate to the maturity of the new towns. This will require flexibility and close working relationships with new town local authorities. The result will pay more attention to areas of housing pressure across the country, whether or not they are located in new towns, whilst also giving proper priority to the democratic accountability of the new town local authorities.

  3.  This note is limited to those new towns in England where English Partnerships inherited responsibility for assets and liabilities. We also have a national role in regeneration and development that extends well beyond the new towns to include coalfields, the Millennium Communities and a prominent role in the Urban Regeneration Companies (URCs) and it is important to show linkages in delivery of key objectives in regeneration and managed development with EP's wider remit and the inherited role in new towns.


  4.  English Partnerships (EP) was created by combining the (Commission for the New Towns (CNT) and the Urban Regeneration Agency (URA) and we retain the powers of these two organisations, which we seek to use in new and creative ways. In Corby, for example, English Partnerships supports the URC by contributing to the costs of preparing its regeneration framework and by acquiring sites that are essential to the delivery of that framework. In Telford and Runcorn we are working with the local authorities to renew run down housing areas. These activities would not have been possible under the residuary body role of the old CNT.

  5.  CNT was established 40 years ago to manage the assets and liabilities of Development Corporations, once they had achieved their objectives, and from 1992 it has had responsibility for all remaining new town property. CNT has been required by government for the last twenty years to dispose of its property portfolio. Most assets now consist of land for development, about 85 per cent of which is greenfield. Half of the portfolio is located in areas of high housing pressure. Table 1 in the Appendix indicates the trend in sales, capital expenditure and receipts over the last five years.

  6.  Following the merger, English Partnerships still has interests of some kind in 21 new towns in England, but our main land holdings are now in Milton Keynes, Telford, Warrington and Central Lancashire (Table 2 of the Appendix). As we have a national remit, EP can direct resources across local and regional boundaries. We are effectively recycling resources from land sales in the south to support regeneration and development needs further north in, for example, Middlesbrough and Merseyside. We aim to balance demand for housing growth in the south with managing lesser or declining demand in the north and within that to aim to meet the target for brownfield development overall.

  7.  In some early new towns EP's assets consist mainly of clawback rights, covenants and areas of civic amenity (landscape areas, highway verge, etc). In April 1998, EP took responsibility for the remaining property rights and liabilities of the final eight English Urban Development Corporations and from 1999 we began taking on the residuary functions of Housing Action Trusts.

  8.  Ministers are currently undertaking a quinquennial Review of English Partnerships which we believe will endorse the approach in this paper.


  9.  EP's core role is to support the long term strategic regeneration and development of vacant, derelict and town expansion land. The new towns are highly relevant to this and to the Government's agenda for sustainability and economic growth. EP has therefore increasingly become an investor in the new towns, whilst also continuing to generate net income for the Treasury of around £120 million per annum.

  10.  English Partnerships makes a substantial contribution to the continuing development of new towns where we still have an interest:

    —  An annual capital investment programme of some £35 million on average for the provision of infrastructure, environmental improvement and community facilities;

    —  Dedicated planning and development staff with a remit to benefit the town;

    —  Support for, and membership of, local economic development partnerships in accordance with locally agreed strategies;

    —  Financial, technical and professional support to local authorities for housing need surveys and urban capacity studies;

    —  Modest contributions to affordable housing for key workers and families on low incomes. Over the past five years over 1,200 affordable homes have been contractually committed for delivery;

    —  Contributions to local strategic partnerships and the development of community plans. We enable grassroots involvement through support for community planning exercises;

    —  Applying higher energy efficiency standards to new developments.

  11.  Many initiatives have been undertaken to meet locally identified need in support of councils:

    —  In Northampton, the first demonstration of a sustainable town extension is being undertaken in full partnership with the local authority and other stakeholders. The project aims to bring former NHS property into the overall masterplan, linking brownfield and greenfield development;

    —  The strategic, non-residential scheme in Warrington at Omega will provide a much broader range of employment opportunities through English Partnerships' longer-term investment plans;

    —  In Spencers Park, Hemel Hempstead, EP will deliver both new employment initiatives and housing, working in partnership with adjacent landowners and the local authority;

    —  Demonstration schemes at Broughton Atterbury in Milton Keynes and Lightmoor in Telford will deliver new development to higher Eco-Homes standards and will benefit from our Millennium Communities' experience;

    —  In Basildon and Telford we are working with the local authorities, the Housing Corporation and housing associations to make creative use of existing covenants and clawback to regenerate run down housing;

    —  In Milton Keynes a new plan for the City Centre, developed in partnership with the local authority and with full participation from a wide range of stakeholders, has recently been adopted as supplementary planning guidance.

  12.  EP also promotes development in many new towns for their regional importance, where this is supported by the relevant Regional Development Agency. Northampton, Corby and Milton Keynes, for example, could have sufficient capacity to meet the need for growth in the southern part of England. Basildon is an important opportunity in the Thames Gateway and Omega, in Warrington, is one of the North West's key strategic projects. Telford can make a substantial contribution in the West Midlands.


  13.  EP supports local strategic partnerships to benefit those who live, work or carry on business in the new towns. These benefits include:

    —  Identifying, with the local authority, through jointly agreed strategies, how our assets may best be used to meet their local strategic goals;

    —  A dedication to best practice in urban design. This produces integrated neighbourhoods based on the master plan approach which are then procured on the basis of detailed design briefs agreed with the local authority;

    —  Pre-development investment in infrastructure and services with a return on that investment achieved through later uplift in land values and a co-operative approach to planning obligations;

    —  Managing growth to achieve local goals including community infrastructure such as the provision of serviced sites for schools, primary health care development and other local facilities.


  14.  The demand for accommodation is recognised as a crucial limiting factor on the economic success of several English regions. In the south east, for example, new homes completed slumped from 28,600 in 1997 to 25,450 in 1999, despite rising demand, shown by escalating prices. The only year in which the number of completions matched the Regional Planning Guidance target of 28,050 was 1997. In Milton Keynes an average of over 1,500 homes a year were completed in the five years to 2000 but this is still some 450 units a year short of local plan targets to 2011. In Northampton, an annual output of 750 homes is required, yet the town has already shown a shortfall of over 400 dwellings during the first five years of the current County Structure Plan. Significant numbers of new homes are therefore badly needed. The new towns are an obvious place to accommodate them, where EP is able to apply its resources and expertise in partnership with the local authorities. Without this route the pressure on infill and green belt development will grow.


  15.  The original New Town Development Corporations acted as a one-stop-shop, able to carry out very large scale development within reasonable time frames in a unified manner. EP has inherited from these Corporations a range of planning powers, provided that the proposed development is detailed in accordance with an existing approval from the Secretary of State under his powers in the New Towns Act 1981. Towns where significant areas are still covered by approvals include Telford, Milton Keynes, Central Lancashire and Warrington. Table 3 indicates the towns with existing approvals.

  16.  Development procured by EP is based upon the masterplan approach which includes:

    —  Subdivision of the masterplan into discrete sites. For each site a detailed development brief is provided as a basis for marketing assets and evaluating tender submissions or negotiated sales;

    —  Developer submission of an application for authorisation, which is the equivalent of a detailed planning application;

    —  Consultation with the local authority and others;

    —  Issue of planning consent concurrent with contractual completion of the sale agreement.

  17.  This process ensures that all development promoted by EP complies with the local development plan and wider government planning policies. EP's statutory remit enables direct forward funding of infrastructure and contributions to meet the need for local facilities and services. This ability to directly invest in preparation for development is not available to local authorities.

  18.  The New Towns Act powers played a vital role in the development of the new towns. However, it is English Partnerships' view that these powers appear increasingly anachronistic and should be carefully phased out. The 1981 Act authorisations do have the following advantages:

    —  They allow advance infrastructure to be provided and most efficiently deployed by enabling a number of developments to progress simultaneously;

    —  They enable the growth of the town (including future service requirements) to be planned with complete certainty as to the type and shape of future development;

    —  They allow EP to undertake a proactive planning process, in a strategic manner that is not yet possible through the planning system as it currently operates;

    —  They deliver high quality development through detailed site briefs and within contractual commitments;

    —  They maximise site value by ensuring planning certainty.

  19.  They also have the following disadvantages:

    —  They require local planing decisions to be taken by a national body, rather than the democratically elected local authority, and there is no right of appeal against those decisions;

    —  They set a framework for development that was established more than a decade ago and does not necessarily take account of the latest thinking. Although English Partnerships always consults widely on proposed development, in line with the latest best practice, only very limited statutory consultation is mandatory.

  20.  We would prefer the phased replacement of our planning powers with consents obtained instead through the normal planning processes of the democratically elected local planning authority. This action would, however, have a potential impact on the future development of the new towns and the operation of the new town local authorities. Factors include:

    —  The advantages of EP having the capital resources to fund infrastructure would be lost. In the absence of an outline consent no investment could be made;

    —  The existing authorisations for development would be lost and, if no appropriate local plan allocation were in place, the land would have no planning status;

    —  Where sites are in the pipeline there would be significant delay since the planning process would have to begin again from scratch on all sites where development had not been authorised;

    —  Section 106 agreements, not currently necessary because EP provides community benefits, often in advance of development;

    —  Market confidence is likely to be damaged and some investment in areas of marginal demand is likely to be diverted away from the new towns altogether.

  21.  The damage to new towns which would result from an abrupt halt to the use of the New Towns Act powers could be significant. We suggest that if our planning powers are to be replaced Government would need to give:

    —  A clear undertaking to the new town local authorities that they will not be worse off as a result;

    —  A similar understanding that the resources of EP will not suffer and that there will be no reduction in the support and investment that we currently provide in the new towns, nor negative impact on other programmes to manage redistribution and demand;

    —  A clear statement of the validity of existing consents to enable schemes already in the pipeline to continue without the need to seek additional approval from the Local Planning Authority.

  A dual approval system could be beneficial in relation to sites not already in progress. This would enable EP to seek outline consents or agree supplementary planning guidance with the local planning authority in a manner that does not bring the stream of new development to a standstill.

  22.  EP would work closely alongside the local authority over the transitional period, with both sides recognising that it may be beneficial to use English Partnerships' powers where circumstances demand and where this has the full support of the local authority.

  23.  EP has been reviewing all remaining authorisations on a town by town basis to understand where local plan policies support our land being developed in accordance with our statutory remit. In all locations, the development authorisation must be implemented in compliance with local development plan policies.


  24.  EP wants to apply our resources to those areas where property-based activity can make a contribution, where the need for growth and renewal or the pressure of housing demand are greatest. We have a National Land Use Database, which identifies land available for redevelopment (ie, brownfield land). Well over 80 per cent of England's brownfield land lies within the most disadvantaged 20 per cent of wards, mainly in the north of the country. Areas of high housing demand and least availability of brownfield land for development lies in the south of the country. New towns are found in both categories.

  25.  EP proposes to re-define our land portfolio in three ways

  Smaller assets of local importance community: related assets, land for parks, sites already identified for the local authorities' own requirements, etc. We will seek to make up fiscally neutral asset parcels in each council area and, where this is not possible, we will seek DTLR approval to transfer assets with the benefit of cash endowments.

  Key Strategic Projects: These projects are currently within English Partnerships' portfolio. They either promote economic growth and development in the 20 per cent most deprived communities in England or they demonstrate sustainable growth in the 20 per cent of local authorities experiencing greatest housing pressure.

  Remaining Land: A large middle range of land and projects which are in the process of being brought forward or where the local plan, and hence the planning status of the land, is ambiguous. Working in partnership with the local authority, it will take three to five years to bring these developments to fruition.

  26.  EP will concentrate on the areas of greatest need by transferring as many of our assets and liabilities as possible to the new town local authorities. Our focus will be on areas of need and housing pressure, wherever they may be.


  27.  In some respects, the established new towns remain a world-class model. The original goals of the new town development corporations will, however, be substantially complete in the first decade of this new century. It is therefore time to bring to an end the concept of "new towns" as a distinct class of local government.

  28.  Future Government policy should instead concentrate on areas where the substantial increases in household growth expected over the next 20 years can be sustainably accommodated in well designed, integrated, energy efficient communities. In many cases (particularly in the South and Midlands) this can be achieved through the growth—both internally and externally—of existing new towns. Such growth will also be appropriate in many places that have never been designated as a new town.

  29.  EP believes that this vision of a national network of sustainable new communities is the natural successor to the new towns concept. English Partnerships' contribution to the new towns does not end with their de-designation, rather it takes a new form. Specifically, there needs to be a maturing relationship which recognises the growing competencies of the new town authorities and moves away from the paternalistic role that EP had inherited. We welcome this opportunity to discuss with the Select Committee how that relationship can mature and recognising that EP's role is ultimately time-limited.

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