Era of new towns is on its way again

There may not yet be a full-scale consensus, but it is beginning to look as though a significant convergence of views is taking place between the main political parties over the need for new garden cities.

Garden cities: more are needed. anemoneprojectors pic
Garden cities: more are needed. anemoneprojectors pic

David Cameron still craves the conference applause earned by sideswipes at the planning system, but on policy matters his ministers are lining up behind the lead he gave last March. Then he urged planning to regain its nerve and emulate Patrick Abercrombie's visionary plan for post-war London that "had the right idea" in opting for "well-planned and well-located new towns".

They could provide the green and pleasant living environment that many people crave, while protecting fine landscapes and countryside. In a key passage, the PM argued that, while everyone celebrates green belts, far fewer recognise the role of new towns in keeping them intact.

At the time, Cameron's conversion achieved only brief recognition because he failed to acknowledge that many green belts are much more extensive now and that some encroachment into them is inevitable if "significant new growth" is to be achieved "where it is needed". As this year's conference season progressed, however, friend and foe alike piled in to support the garden city idea. New planning minister Nick Boles told a fringe meeting that it is "patently ludicrous to think that we are never again going to spawn large settlements".

What is more, he admitted that it is "somewhat optimistic" to expect councils, developers and communities to just come together and make it happen - this is one of those times "when government does need to lead". Developer Crest Nicholson declared its readiness to embrace garden city principles and called for a doubling in the total number of housing sites with planning permission.

In September, the Town and Country Planning Association marked the upsurge of interest with a special garden cities issue of its magazine, which included Lib Dem peer Matthew Taylor reporting a "huge evolution of attitudes" at the Department for Communities and Local Government and shadow communities minister Roberta Blackman-Woods urging government action, arguing that we "cannot abdicate responsibility for large-scale place-making to business".

She suggested that it has "become possible to imagine a future for planning policy" that must rise to the challenge of "housing crisis, population growth and environmental concerns". Echoing Conservative views, Blackman-Woods endorsed the potential for "community engagement, good design and a holistic approach, linking planning to the economy, jobs, the land and environmental resources".

There remain many unresolved issues, including how to capture the uplift in land values within new settlements as a way of funding necessary new infrastructure. The profession should rally behind the policy undistracted by the fading assumption that all the country's housing and environmental aims can be achieved on brownfield sites alone. The era of new settlement building is about to come again. It is a chance too big and urgent to spurn.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues and TCPA trustee.

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