Labour eyes new town delivery bodies

The shadow chancellor Ed Balls has said that the Labour Party is looking at reviving development corporations as the mechanism to bring forward a new generation of new towns, as fresh details emerged of how the party intends to deliver 200,000 homes a year by 2020.

Speaking last week at the National Housebuilding Council, Balls said that he wanted to "draw on the lessons from the past of how the new towns were developed after the Second World War by development corporations".

Balls said that Labour's new housing commission, led by former BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons, would examine "whether and how" to give new town development corporations the right to acquire and assemble land and powers to plan and develop the infrastructure needed.

Balls added that Labour could provide government guarantees to development corporations in order to "provide backing for a large-scale growth programme to provide confidence, reduce risk and give credibility to the development".

Speaking last week at the Town and Country Planning Association's (TCPA) annual conference, shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds said that the Lyons commission would be launched in the next few weeks. She said it would set out a "road map" of how a Labour government could build 200,000 homes a year by 2020.

This would include "how to drive forward new a generation of new towns and garden cities", she said, adding: "I simply don't think we will reach the volume or quality that we need unless we look at this seriously."

At the same conference, Tory planning minister Nick Boles said he did not think central government should "impose" new settlements on areas.

Reynolds said Lyons would examine incentives to encourage local authorities to come forward with proposals for new towns in the first instance, but did not rule out central government intervention "further down the line".

Balls' announcement came just a week after Tory peer Lord Wolfson, chief executive of retailer Next, launched a competition to find the best idea for a garden city, with a prize of £250,000.

Kate Henderson, chief executive of the TCPA, said the organisation was "delighted" at Labour's announcement.

She said all the main parties shared an ambition to deliver "high-quality, well-designed new communities", but only the opposition has said they "want to be ready with a road map for delivery from day one".

And only Labour has talked specifically about how new communities would be delivered, Henderson said, and expressed an understanding of the long-term commitment and dedicated delivery vehicle involved.

As part of its campaign to keep the issue on the political agenda, she said the TCPA planned to rewrite the 1946 New Towns Act and publish an updated version fit for contemporary use in February.

She said instead of a senior minister deciding where a new town would go, the TCPA's redrafted act would instead allow local councils and communities to go to the government and request a settlement in their area.

The corporations would have to be more locally accountable with greater council and community representation on their boards, while the legislation would need updating with contemporary policies around sustainability and equality, Henderson said.

But Catriona Riddell, the Planning Officers' Society's convenor for strategic planning, said central government intervention was needed as the first step, rather than Labour and the Tories' "bottom-up approach".

She said: "What none of the main parties are talking about is the first stage in that decision-making.

"It needs national government to decide in the first place where these settlements should be.

"Governments are elected to make these decisions on our behalf."

She said it was not fair to place the responsibility of deciding such large developments of up to 20,000 new homes on the shoulders of local councillors. The locations of new towns need a national rationale behind them, Riddell added.

Philip Barnes, group land and planning director at housebuilder Barratt Developments, asked whether local authorities would actually volunteer for new settlements and, if so, would they necessarily be in the areas of greatest housing need.

"Even if we had some sites identified now it may be 10 years before they started yielding much-needed homes," he said.

In response to Labour's announcement, housing minister Kris Hopkins said: "The Labour government's top-down eco-towns built nothing but resentment, and the Labour Party now looks set to reheat its failed policy.

"This government believes in working with local communities to support locally-led development, both large and small, which is doing more to kick-start housing than Labour ever achieved."

How the post-war New Towns were delivered

Q: What powers did the government have to designate new towns?

A: Under the 1946 New Towns Act, ministers could designate an area as the site of a proposed new town if they were satisfied, "after consultation with any local authorities who appear ... to be concerned, that it is expedient in the national interest that any area of land should be developed as a new town".

Q: What delivery mechanisms did the 1946 Act put in place?

A: The Act entrusted the creation of the new towns to a new body, called a development corporation. According to a 2006 report for the Department for Communities and Local Government, these corporations were central to the delivery of all the new towns during their phase of major growth. "These were public corporations created, appointed and funded (through loans and subsidies) by central government to deliver the new town programme," the report said.

Q: What powers did the new town development corporations have?

A: The New Towns Act gave development corporations wide-ranging powers to "acquire, hold, manage and dispose of land and other property, to carry out building and other operations, to provide water, electricity, gas, sewerage and other services, to carry on any business or undertaking in or for the new town, and generally to do anything necessary or expedient for the purposes of the new town or for purposes incidental thereto".

Q: What local authority roles did they take on?

A: The development corporations assumed partial or complete responsibility for many of the development functions of local government, including planning, providing infrastructure and social housing. However, local authorities continued to be responsible for providing schools, libraries and facilities for emergency services.

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