Development Consent Orders are a great way to draw together the consents necessary for a piece of infrastructure. As the locally led garden towns movement grows there are siren calls to use the DCO process to help deliver some of the housing that is needed. Could a DCO could be used for a new town or major urban extension?
Building a windfarm and creating a community are very different. Any new town worth its salt will evolve over time – both during initial development and beyond. Having the ability to evolve is crucial. What we imagine now as the community of the future is, almost inevitably, wrong. People will live differently. They will travel differently. Education will be delivered differently. Health and well-being will be part of daily life, to prevent the cost of medicine and elderly care becoming a national millstone. Shopping will have undergone several revolutions. The nature of jobs, and the balance between jobs, homes and social life will probably be unrecognisable. New communities will also need be actively curated. Success will depend as much on the relationships that are created as upon the bricks and mortar. The built form of all communities will have to change, and adapt over time, to reflect these processes.
The present breed of DCOs is probably ill-suited to this type of long-term social engineering. At the moment they suffer from inflexibility. They work well where the proposal is clear, neat, tidy and fixed – like a windfarm. New towns are not so neat and tidy. DCOs to date have also largely been governance free exercises – aside from a few controls on “reserved matters” and security for CPO compensation. Delivering new towns will need the active participation of the public and private sector, as well as both existing and future communities. It will need both active and passive governance. None of this has been addressed, so far, in the DCO process.
One of the hardest lessons for those delivering new towns is that they are, and should be changeable, iterative, complicated, exercises in trial and error, buffeted by markets, politics and people. There will be many different ways to deliver them, from private sector schemes going through the traditional planning process with negotiated long term quality partnerships through to development corporations, both nationally and locally led. And there will be numerous variants in between. A common factor to all will be the need to facilitate and encourage change. We need to ensure that the benefits of variety and the capacity to evolve is not straitjacketed by the using DCOs if they remain as rigid as they are at present. Remember that the sirens called ships to ruin on their rocks.