The Bank of England is concerned that Britain is building half as many homes a year as Canada, despite having twice the population. Planners are concerned about unplanned growth. David Cameron’s support in early 2012 for a new Abercrombie Plan to protect the green belt and meet housing needs led to an RTPI/ Land Securities report. But a Garden Cities Prospectus promised for high growth areas has not materialised. Nick Boles’ confirmation in June this year that no resources would be allocated seemed to seal its fate. But new towns are back on the agenda. The Labour Party proposes to use five of them to double annual housing delivery until 2022 and the man they have appointed to come up with a blue print for 220,000 homes a year is calling for ‘muscular action’, including the compulsory acquisition of land subject to unimplemented consents. The Policy Exchange, courtesy of Lord Wolfson, are also keeping the original commitment alive – offering a £250,000 prize for a workable Garden City model. Now David Cameron’s key planning advisor has jumped ship to oversee it. Here is a short entry for the Prize.
Where should new settlements go? In the absence of the RSS ‘Areas of Search’, LEPs should be empowered and incentivised to identify their own Garden Cities and Suburbs, where needs indicate they are required. Business Rates, CIL and other fiscal tools can be used to make it worthwhile. An assumption that they will be built within range of London or on the line of HS2 needs care – the original Garden Cities were as much about where employment, not just houses, should go. ‘Muscular action’ is certainly needed, if only to make clear choices about the location and scale of major new settlements and their accompanying infrastructure.
Land powers and costs
‘Housing estate’ is a sullied phrase. If there is going to be social licence to build, genuine placemaking is required. Excellent masterplanning and design require land budgets and values that allow space for schools, parks and the like as a starting point, not an extra, ‘subject to viability’. Compulsory purchase will be needed to achieve this, as the draft London Housing Strategy recognises. The real question is how is it valued and who holds the land once assembled – LEPs, community trusts, Community Interest Companies or an arm of the Treasury?
Prime the pump
CPO valuation will reflect the public cost (or balance sheet risk) of forward funding significant new infrastructure. The TIF approach that has catalysed the Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area is a good starting point. It needs a strategic body – such as the Mayor – to invest in infrastructure before planning payments, CIL and land receipts can catch up. Labour envisage market borrowing backed by a UK plc guarantee.
Letchworth and Welwyn are characterised by communal ownerships and structures, which has allowed investment to be repaid and reused. Milton Keynes had a different but effective model. The lessons from these experiences – good and bad – need to be reflected in models of community ownership and reinvestment that provide an asset lock for crucial facilities and a base for social enterprises, releasing local authorities from management and revenue burdens associated with new infrastructure. The Neighbourhood Share of CIL is a good model for endowing these vehicles.
The Prize winner should address these issues and more, not just design.