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The new New Towns Agenda

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The third reading of any Bill in the House of Lords is normally fantastically dull. That was not true of what is now the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017. Lord Mathew Taylor introduced a new and apparently innocuous clause that allows a completely new and parallel way of bringing new towns forward. It authorises the rewriting of the existing new town legislation, by regulation, to allow local authorities, or groups of local authorities, to ask the Secretary of State to designate an area as a new town and for a development corporation to be set up.

If agreed by the Secretary of State, then the local authorities will, effectively, step into the role that the Secretary of State occupied in the old new towns. They will control the way in which their new town development corporation is governed, operates and delivers new communities.  They will be accountable for successes.  They will be responsible for failures. Some powers will, inevitably, be retained by the Secretary of State, at least in the short term – the power to confirm CPOs and to authorise Local Development Orders. In time, with true devolution, even these powers could be left to the parent authority.

What will this mean? Many authorities are already exploring the possibility of new towns and particularly garden communities. One of the real difficulties is educating landowners that the cost of developing the necessary community and social infrastructure up front is significant, and that the legacy costs of stewardship will eat into land values, as much as if not more than the traditional enabling costs. This means that the normal landowner model of a minimum land value + a share of net proceeds or overage does not really work.  There is also a need to ensure that all land is bound into the same broad vision and programme. If that is not the case then the allocation of costs can be unfair.  The first phases will have to bear significant infrastructure costs that then increase the value of the land in later phases. If the later phases choose to develop independently then it may be problematic making sure that they bear their fair share of the initial place-making investment. A development corporation model helps to solve this. It allows early and extensive acquisition. It also ensures that the underlying “scheme”, the new town, is more completely disregarded for valuation purposes.

In practice, development corporations should rarely be necessary. Local authorities already hold most of the appropriate powers. However, the use of, or the threat of the use of, a development corporation may well be a helpful bargaining tool. It should allow local authorities to reach agreements with reluctant landowners. It should ensure that all parties contribute and benefit equally. It should be a weapon of last resort.