Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by The Core Cities Group (NT 35)


  In parallel with the heightened focus on regions in both the UK and Europe, a strong consensus is rapidly emerging on the crucial role cities play in the development of competitive regional economies. The success of regions is, in turn, critical to national economic success. The Core Cities Group, comprising the eight major cities outside London, has been at the forefront of this debate for a number of years and is now actively working with Government and other partners in developing, applying and monitoring the impact of new and innovative policy and practice geared to delivering the national agenda for urban renewal and regional competitiveness. New Towns is an issue in which the Core Cities have an interest and we are pleased to be able to contribute to the debate on future policy in this area via the Urban Affairs Sub-Committee's New Inquiry.


  It is important to understand that, as a concept, New Towns are not particularly new and that their original purpose was in fact primarily to provide decent housing in the form of "commuter villages" for their large neighbouring cities. This was driven by a shortage of housing after the Second World War, slum clearance and growing demand from smaller households as a consequence of life style/social changes and the growing affluence of some sections of the community.

  Some of those policies, particularly the large-scale depopulation of major cities as part of the slum clearance programmes in the 1960's are now rightly viewed as misguided. Current urban policy is firmly geared towards achieving an "urban renaissance", a key strand of which is the repopulation of our major cities by creating vibrant, sustainable, "liveable" communities, particularly within inner city areas.

  Over the same period some New Towns, characterised by Milton Keynes, have expanded on a scale never originally envisaged. The relative success of such New Towns in attracting inward investment, particularly as a location for knowledge based industries, has in turn led to increased demand for housing in close proximity. This is perhaps one of the most damaging legacies of the New Town concept and there is no doubt that further expansion of existing and/or the creation of more satellite locations will critically undermine the new agenda on urban renewal.


  The success of the New Towns in attracting investment has largely been due to the policy context and legal framework in which they have been allowed to operate. For example, Development Corporations were created in some areas and granted powers over and above those of adjacent Local Authorities including, for example, the ability to buy up private land easily and speedily and to exert greater control over the public utilities. This inevitably created more favourable conditions for business and investors that could not be matched by adjacent urban areas operating within the more rigid, inflexible framework. If an urban renaissance is to be achieved in the heart of the Core Cities within our major conurbations, this policy needs to be reversed and relevant policy incentives to direct investment away from the periphery and into the cores introduced.


  The level of inward investment achieved by some of the New Towns has had a detrimental impact on our major cities. Within the Core Cities, existing employment sites and opportunities are cheek by jowl with sustainable urban neighbourhoods. However, in the case of Manchester for example, the quantum of allocated/committed greenfield land for employment/housing uses within Warrington BC is now competing with priority regeneration-based initiatives in the established urban centres.

  Furthermore, if New Towns are expanded and large greenfield employment sites are released, the argument may follow that, to ensure sustainable patterns of development, land for housing should be released in close proximity to these employment sites. This would severely undermine the ongoing work of Core Cities to renew and restructure their housing markets in order to reposition themselves as high quality, high value housing and employment locations. There is no doubt that the inner cities, already located in close proximity to vibrant, economically successful city centres that contain the critical mass of commercial, educational, retail, public transport and leisure facilities required to support densely populated areas, are best placed to achieve sustainable patterns of growth and development. The expansion of existing New Towns and/or the creation of additional New Towns rests entirely on the release of further greenfield land. Not only does this fail to meet the sustainability test, it contradicts and undermines current Government policy on achieving an urban renaissance. This reinforces the need for a national spatial strategy, a point which is expanded upon in the Core Cities response to the current Planning Green Paper.


  Within many conurbations there is a supply of previously developed land that can accommodate a significant proportion of a region's housing provision. Whilst acknowledging that there are issues in developing previously used sites in terms of contamination, infrastructure, multiple ownership, existing uses etc., an urban potential study of Greater Manchester identified that Manchester could accommodate 70,000 new dwellings by 2021 on previously developed land. This would depend on a focused regeneration strategy incorporating innovative solutions in sustainable locations, policy changes at local, regional and national level and changes to implementation mechanisms. The RPG figure for Manchester was 38,000. Clearly, there is a wide difference between these figures.


  A newly identified challenge for housing provision and achieving regeneration goals within urban areas is the collapse of the housing market within the inner city cores of our major cities. This has occurred due to a number of factors:

    —  The predominance of one tenure (social and private rented sector)

    —  Monolithic provision (eg 1000s of 2/3 bed houses in one locality)

    —  Concentrations of a particular dwelling type (high rise flats or back of pavement terraces)

    —  Shifts in economic activity and consequential unemployment concentrations of elderly people dependent on benefits.

  Without measures to improve housing choice and quality in areas which have had historically high levels of low income housing economic regeneration will merely exacerbate the problem, as economically active people choose to leave the most marginal neighbourhoods. (Changing Housing Markets and Urban Regeneration in the M62 Corridor, Brendan Nevin 2001).

  The combination of housing market collapse alongside huge amounts of previously developed land places a simultaneous burden and opportunity upon Core Cities to deliver housing provision in sustainable locations. With considerable policy support and funding at the european, national, regional and local level the urban renaissance of these areas could, however, be achieved with sustainable patterns of development, building upon existing infrastructure, facilities, public transport etc., (PPG3 paragraph 31).

  A considerable proportion of the population of the Core Cities has already been lost to New Towns the priority for the future must be to ensure that this trend does not continue and, indeed, is reversed. Further loss of the population from the inner cores to New Towns will undoubtedly undermine the regeneration of the inner cities. The restructuring of the housing market will require the clearance of obsolete housing and its replacement with a greater mix of housing sizes, types and tenures, including owner occupied housing, to create new housing markets and more balanced communities. A fully informed, joined-up approach to the role of Core Cities in regional economies and housing markets should be agreed before any further widespread release of housing provision in New Towns.


  The creation and expansion of New Towns typically requires the release of greenfield sites, these sites being recognised by developers as "easier" to develop than previously used (brownfield) land. In addition, New Towns have been developed to low densities and designed around the use of the car. Such patterns of development have encouraged a culture of commuting and car-dependency, which has played a significant role in creating and reinforcing social exclusion in our inner cities. Government has now acknowledged that such policies are ultimately unsustainable and the current drive to deliver the urban renaissance explicitly recognises that cities and other urban areas offer the best opportunity to create sustainable communities in the long-term.


  It is of crucial importance that this Inquiry, and any policies, initiatives or interventions proposed for New Towns take into account wider Government objectives for urban renaissance, and fundamental issues of economic disparities within and between the regions of this country, which can only be effectively addressed by sustainable approaches to housing provision, planning and investment.

  The conurbation cores, with their concentration of commercial and employment opportunities, retail, transport and leisure assets, all of which connect, sustainably, with densely populated areas, hold the key to enhanced economic competitiveness and performance of the regions, and in turn the country as a whole. Further policy interventions to expand or favour investment in New Towns, without acknowledging the greater priorities and opportunities present in Core Cities, will merely exacerbate trends in the loss of greenfield land and the depopulation of cities, which we are now actively seeking to reverse. Such an approach will undoubtedly severely undermine Government objectives to secure an urban renaissance.

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Prepared 16 April 2002