Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (NT 33)


  1.  The Urban Affairs Sub-Committee has asked for evidence in relation to New Towns and wishes to examine the following:

    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 the towns;

    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;

        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;

        the role of the New Towns in their regional economies, in both the industrial/commercial and housing markets and their effect on surrounding conurbations;

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


  2.  This memorandum covers New Towns in England;

Basildon, Bracknell, Central Lancashire, Corby, Crawley, Harlow, Hatfield, Hemel Hempstead, Milton Keynes, Newton Aycliffe, Northampton, Peterborough, Peterlee, Redditch, Runcorn, Skelmersdale, Stevenage, Telford, Warrington, Washington, and Welwyn Garden City.


  3.  Some MPs and Local Authorities have raised areas of concern, both during the House of Commons 29 January 2002 Adjournment Debate (English Partnerships and the New Towns) and in responses to the Department's Review of English Partnerships. Specifically MPs have drawn attention to the state of housing and infrastructure, transport and car dependency, and the need to ensure that the New Town communities are sustainable. Issues have also been raised on the economic situation in some New Towns. A common theme from all contributors to the Adjournment debate was the role, land owning and planning powers of EP. It is thought that EP's land holdings on the outskirts of some new towns causes it to focus on those areas to the detriment of more central and deprived areas in need of renewal elsewhere. These points are dealt with under paras 24-32 (Sustainability), 33 (Exclusion), 40 (Regional Economies) and 34-39 (Organisation and Regulations). The latter section discusses the impact of EP's remit in brief and the EP Review will look at some of those issues in greater depth.


  4.  A brief history of the origins of the New Town movement is attached at annex A. The original ideas, and their implementation are relevant to issues of planning and sustainability.

  5.  No New Towns have been designated since 1970. The New Towns programme was rapidly run down in the 1980s, as the number of public agencies appointed or supported by central government was reduced, with greater reliance on the operation of the free market to secure economic advance.

  6.  The Commission for New Towns remained an autonomous organisation until 1999. In May of that year, the CNT joined with the Urban Regeneration Agency to form English Partnerships. Although English Partnerships is a single operating entity, both the CNT and URA retain their separate statutory identities. The CNT side of EP therefore retains its duty under the New Towns Act 1981 to maintain and enhance the value of the land held and the return obtained from it, but with regard to the convenience and welfare of persons residing, working or carrying on business there.

  7.  The towns were originally financed by long term loans from the National Loans Fund. CNT repaid all the outstanding debt in early 1999, many years early. Since then some £120m has been invested by CNT in the new towns and just under £600m of receipts have been generated.


  8.  During their lifetime, the development corporations were empowered to apply to the Secretary of State for his agreement to proposals about the way in which new town land was to be developed. Such approvals came to be known as 7(1) approvals, after the relevant section of the Act. CNT inherited the consents which the Development Corporations had obtained. The Act also provided for the Secretary of State to make a special development order which would allow the corporations, as well as the CNT, to authorise development in accordance with the approvals. The most recent Order dates back to 1977.

  9.  The Secretary of State's approvals have no time limit and, as a result, CNT can still today authorise development in line with consents given more than ten years ago. Various statutory and non-statutory requirements now exist for CNT to consult local planning authorities and other appropriate interested parties, including the relevant Government Office, before authorising development. These provide a degree of Government control over the way in which development is permitted.

  10.  Nevertheless, the responsibility for authorising development in support of 7(1) approvals lies with the CNT board. Such approvals exist in only 8 of the former new towns and provided the land is still in CNT ownership, it is still able to authorise development. (These planning powers apply in Milton Keynes, Telford, Warrington, Basildon, Peterborough, Runcorn, Central Lancashire and Washington.) In the remaining towns, standard procedures under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 apply.


  11.  Since the wind-up in March 1992 of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, New Towns policy has effectively been absorbed into the mainstream of planning, housing and urban policy.

  12.  Government planning policy is largely set out in a series of Planning Policy Guidance notes. Of crucial importance is PPG1 General policy and principles, which sets out the Government's overarching approach to planning and explains that this should be underpinned by three themes sustainability, mixed use and design.

  13.  The Department has a PSA target that at least 60 per cent of new housing should be built on brownfield land by 2008. Local planning authorities are required to adopt a sequential approach to housing, by giving priority to re-using previously-developed land within urban area, bringing empty homes back into use and converting existing buildings, rather that developing greenfield sites. This is in contrast to the original approach to New Towns, which were largely built on greenfield land. Where extant section 7(1) approvals relate to greenfield development, EP must consult with the relevant Government Office on any proposal falling within the scope of October 2000 Greenfield Direction. This applies to sites of 5 hectares or more, or comprising 150 dwellings or over, and raises particular issues in some New Towns, such as Milton Keynes, where almost all available land is greenfield.

  14.  One of the main drivers behind the New Towns movement was the need to deal with population growth, and in particular to provide housing. Housing design and density varied considerably across the New Towns, Stevenage, for example, had a number of large public sector housing projects, whilst Milton Keynes contains a sizeable proportion executive-style housing. The later New Towns managed to deliver more varied tenure and price mixes, than either the earlier New Towns or other contemporary development.

  15.  MPs and Local Authorities from several New Towns have raised concerns about their design and construction and while there are some issues specific to New Towns, there are many similarities with issues raised by other urban areas. For instance, high demand, and the consequent need for affordable housing, is a feature of the London and South East housing market generally; low demand is mostly prevalent in the North with sizeable pockets in the Midlands. There can also be problems with the condition of private sector housing in some areas.

  16.  The Government's housing policy statement, The Way Forward for Housing, together with the Urban and Rural White Papers and the National Action Plan on Neighbourhood Renewal, provide a comprehensive framework for addressing these problems.

  17.  In areas of high housing demand, rising house prices can result in increased need for affordable housing for the lower paid. The Department seeks to address this in a number of ways. Public investment in affordable housing through the Housing Corporation's Approved Development Programme will rise to over £1.2 billion by 2003-04, almost double the level in 2000-01. The Department is also providing £250 million through the Starter Home Initiative to help 10,000 key workers buy their own homes in areas where high house prices are undermining staff recruitment and retention. Last year English Partnerships approved developments which will provide over 3,600 new homes, including affordable homes in areas of high housing pressure. For example, EP will be facilitating the development of at least 1,200 new homes in Milton Keynes this year, over 350 of which will be affordable. Next year EP aims to commit up to 450 affordable homes in Milton Keynes across a range of tenures, from housing association rent through to low cost sale.

  18.  The southern New Towns provide a possible avenue for addressing housing provision. EP—given their land holdings in New Towns—could also have a role to play, and this is something the EP Review (see below) will be considering.

  19.  Three areas in the South East have now been designated potential growth areas—Milton Keynes, Ashford and the London-Stansted-Cambridge Sub-Region. Studies are proposed to examine the need and scope for additional growth in these areas. The Thames Gateway, which includes Basildon, has also been already identified as a growth area. The nature of future development will vary according to local need and the existing site.

  20.  EP is at the front of efforts by the Prince's Foundation to consider master planning and development, the aim of which is to achieve high density and sustainability while involving key local partners in the community. DTLR is fully supportive of this approach. This results are becoming visible in EPs town expansion plans in Northampton and Basildon, and the potential benefits are such that other local authorities have expressed an interest, Ashford for example

  21.  The Urban White Paper—Our Towns and our Cities the Future—sets out the Government's vision for making our towns and cities places where people want to live, work and invest. It recognises that the future of urban areas and the concept of urban renaissance is vital to regeneration and to creating sustainable patterns of development. The main objectives are:

    —  Getting the design and quality of the urban fabric right

    —  Enabling all towns and cities to create and share prosperity

    —  Providing good quality services people need

    —  Equipping people to participate in developing their communities

  22.  Key mechanisms for delivering this policy include Local Strategic Partnerships, a modernised planning system, fiscal incentives, Urban Regeneration Companies, demonstration projects like the Millennium Communities, Regional Development Agencies, programmes to increase employability, improve training and life-long learning and the £180 billion 10 Year Transport plan.

  23.  These policies and mechanisms complement those in the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal which focuses on action to reduce the gap between the most deprived areas and the rest.


  24.  The planning system has a vital part to play in promoting more sustainable land-use patterns and use of resources. The policy on sustainable development is supported by a guide: Planning for sustainable development towards better practice. The guide indicates that new urban areas, such as new towns, can create sustainable patterns of development if they are located in the right place, have a well-planned transport infrastructure, are developed at right densities and provide a range of local facilities.

  25.  Recent Government policy on planning for housing (Planning Policy Guidance note 3 Housing) reinforces this approach by advocating safe and sustainable developments. To promote more sustainable patterns of development and making better use of previously developed land, the focus for new housing is on existing towns and cities. It is possible that in some New Towns housing stock is likely to need redevelopment and regeneration at the same time (where the original building was done over a short period of time). The Housing Corporation is working with local authorities, EP, Housing Associations and other stakeholders on projects to address this, for example raising private finance for regeneration when properties are transferred to Housing Associations.

  26.  Issues of urban management, and the balance between new development and the regeneration of older part of the towns, are covered by the government's urban, housing and planning policies outlined above; the financial aspects are set out below (paras 30-32). The Government is aware that certain specific problems have been drawn to its attention by MPs and New Towns authorities (eg on the life-expectancy of infrastructure assets), and, in so far as this raises issues in relation to present policies, the second phase of the EP Review (see below paras 39-39) may offer an opportunity for them to be considered.

  27.  The dependence on cars varies between town, depending partly on their stage in the evolution of New Town theory, and the impact of planning on design. The towns' size, layout and circumstances varied widely, with each generation of new towns reflecting the economic and political mood of its time. Subsequently, these new towns presented an opportunity for experimental work, in terms of architectural innovation, urban planning and development. The early new towns stuck quite closely to the recommendations of the Reith report, with construction based around the principle of neighbourhood development, generous open spaces and using existing natural features. The later towns adopted a slightly different approach to take account of emerging factors such as the motor vehicle. Milton Keynes, for example, was designed more on the basis of the USA grid system, with different cells allocated for particular development.

  28.  Most new town master plans show an imaginative approach being taken to public transport provision a dedicated busway exists along the spine of Runcorn; Milton Keynes pioneered the "dial-a-bus" scheme; and in Stevenage there is an extensive cycle path network. In addition most of the new towns have rail access, linking them with nearby major conurbations.

  29.  The Department's Local Transport Planning (LTP) Guidance has addressed the importance of widening travel choices, and developing an integrated approach. In response, as part of their LTPs, both Milton Keynes and Peterborough are aiming to increase choice and bring about a shift away from the car and towards public transport, cycling & walking.


  30.  The present local government capital finance system applies equally to all the main local authorities in England, including New Town authorities. Central Government support for capital investment by local authorities is provided through permission to borrow, either in the form of Basic Credit Approvals (BCAs), Supplementary Credit Approvals (SCAs), or through capital grants.

  31.  New Towns are included in the annual allocation process, the Single Capital Pot, which distributes BCAs to authorities, which can be used for any capital expenditure. BCAs are normally tailored so that authorities with more of their own resources get less than needier authorities. For instance, on this basis, Bracknell, Welwyn, Hatfield and Crawley have in some years received zero BCA allocations. As with other local authorities, New Towns may also benefit from service specific allocations of grant or SCA, eg for education, according to departments' allocation criteria.

  32.  The recent local government White Paper announced the abolition of credit approvals, which are to be replaced with a new local prudential regime. New Town authorities, like all others, will be free to borrow for investment without Government consent, provided they service the debt. The earliest the new prudential system could be introduced is April 2004.


  33.  Current departmental policy aims to reduce the problems and tensions associated with social exclusion. New Towns are among those benefiting from the current approach to both regeneration and neighbourhood renewal. For instance

  Single Regeneration Budget. Almost all of the New Towns have benefited from Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) funding. A number of SRB partnerships have either been located in New Towns or cover multi-districts which include them. (Specific examples are Welwyn Hatfield Capacity Building, Improving Access to Effective Services in Telford's Target Neighbourhoods, Vange New Skills Project in Basildon.)

  Urban Regeneration Companies—A URC has now been established in Corby, with Government approval, specifically to assist the regeneration of the town.

  Neighbourhood Renewal Fund. The National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal focuses on narrowing the gap between our most deprived areas and the rest. Funding is given to the 88 most deprived local authority areas in England. Of the 88 authorities, 5 are New Town areas. Some other local authorities, such as Basildon, also benefit from other regeneration initiatives such as neighbourhood management schemes and warden schemes.


  34.  With its holding of more than 5,000 ha of land in the former new towns, English Partnerships is in a position to influence the way in which the towns continue to develop. It also enjoys the benefits and responsibilities from the long connection which it, and the CNT before it, had with the areas.

  35.  EP has the powers and resources to undertake a direct capital investment programme, which helps provide infrastructure, improvements to the environment and community facilities. It supports, and in a number of cases is a member of, local economic development partnerships. EP also helps finance and provides technical support to local authorities on studies covering such issues as housing need and urban capacity planning.

  36.  EP's primary focus, in accordance with its statutory duty, is on the development and disposal of the land that it owns. Although this approach has worked well in the past, it is becoming increasingly clear that this may not always accord with the local strategic priorities and so EP aims to work more closely with the local authorities in the towns to identify how their assets and plans for the area can be made to support the essential needs of the areas. Such a "town strategy" approach is one that can bring together all the interested parties to ensure consistency of approach.

  37.  However the Local Government Association New Towns Special Interest Group has argued that new towns were discriminated against as a result of EP's presence as a major landowner and that they are unable to negotiate Section 106 agreements with developers to provide benefits to local communities. EP is seen to be receipts-driven, rather than concerned with the individual town. New town authorities have made a case for "normality," arguing that they wanted to be treated like any other local authority.

  38.  Ministers announced to both Houses of Parliament on 16 October 2001 that DTLR would be undertaking a quinquennial review of English Partnerships. This review is looking specifically at some of the main areas of concern that New Towns' residents, local authorities and Members of Parliament have expressed. Its Terms of Reference are

    "To review the role of English Partnerships in delivering the Governments' policies; to consider the future ownership of CNT assets and liabilities, and recommend such changes as might be necessary in the light of the review. To consider English Partnerships' structure and processes to ensure effective and efficient delivery of its remit"

  39.  The review is taking place in two stages. Consultants employed for stage one of the review (KPMG) undertook consultations with seven new town local authorities. In addition, submissions were made to the review team from the LGA New Towns Special Interest Group (SIG) and from individual New Town authorities. The outcome of stage one of the review may or may not have been announced at the time of publication of this memorandum.


  40.  New Towns have not been treated as a special group since 1992, and the Government has not commissioned any specific studies which can inform on the role of New Towns in their local economies. In general terms the economic influence of New Towns varies with their size, characteristics and location. It tends to be larger core cities and city-regions which have significant influence on their regional economies due, Milton Keynes for example. There is also an effect where the New Town is growing relatively to a declining region. Examples are Warrington, whose economic influence is in marked contrast to neighbouring Skelmersdale and Runcorn, and Peterlee, which acts as a major economic centre Easington.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 16 April 2002