Dead end for garden cities?

A long-promised government prospectus outlining the process of promoting garden cities and large settlements remains mysteriously absent. Ben Kochan reports.

Last month, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg used a newspaper column to highlight the fact that a prospectus promised by the government more than two years ago to define the processes for promoting large settlements and garden cities remains unpublished.

Where the prospectus currently sits in government and how far it has progressed is unclear. Whilst many suggest that it's been written - Gerry Hughes, director of consultancy GVA, thinks it was completed more than a year ago - communities secretary Eric Pickles has denied that his department had authored any document that matched media reports of a masterplan for settlements in Yalding, Kent, and Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire.

The prospectus has not been reviewed by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) planning sounding board, according to one of its members.

Pressure for a clear policy statement on new settlements is coming from a wide range of quarters, with a growing consensus that housing demand is not being met from incremental development, according to Home Builders Federation planning director Andrew Whitaker.

Campaign group the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) was instrumental in persuading the government to include references to garden cities in its 2011 document Laying the foundations: a housing strategy for England, and was singled out in 2012 by prime minister David Cameron as a facilitator of proposals.

Since then, the organisation has put out guidance on how the cities might be developed. But, according to TCPA chair Lee Shostak, there is a lack of clarity about where the government now stands.

The likely political backlash from any proposed new settlements in Tory heartlands in the South East is holding back any emphatic statement from government, according to some commentators.

But former Commission for New Towns chief executive John Walker suggests that the current political debate could help to clarify thinking about new settlements before the next election, giving a new government a full term of office to take them forward.

Progress with developing the prospectus has faltered because of changes in the ministerial team, according to former DCLG civil servant Henry Cleary, who oversaw Labour's eco-town programme and is now advising areas on their growth proposals (Cleary has written an online piece for Planning on lessons from the eco-towns programme).

He says that the initial commitment in the government's 2011 housing strategy was made by then housing minister Grant Shapps, MP for Welwyn Garden City. However, Cleary suggests that Shapps' successor Mark Prisk, who represents the Hertford and Stortford constituency, which is close to a proposed northern expansion of Harlow, was more conscious of political dangers.

According to Harry Phibbs, the local government editor of ConservativeHome website, current planning minister Nick Boles is supportive of garden cities, but he has been instructed to "tone down his gung-ho attitude towards development".

A senior civil servant suggests that three key government departments - the Number 10 Policy Unit, the Treasury and DCLG - have actually been working on different documents, and there is disagreement between them - with Eric Pickles vetoing any publication.

While the political debate has been raging, the government's Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) has been supporting new settlements through its Local Infrastructure Fund. Its first £470 million tranche is supporting a range of schemes which are intended to produce about 70,000 homes.

The funding prospectus due to come out in March for the next £1 billion tranche, which was announced in the last autumn statement, will prioritise schemes of more than 1,500 homes, offering developers long term infrastructure finance, according to HCA land and development head Gareth Blacker.

GVA's Hughes believes that government needs to take "a definitive position on facilitating and enabling these larger schemes, which means giving the HCA a clear delivery mandate".

While government policy remains vague, the Conservative peer Lord Wolfson's competition for ideas for garden cities with a £250,000 prize, launched in November, came at a convenient time for those lobbying government. Andy von Bradsky, chairman of urban design consultancy PRP, says: "The prize means that the government does not need to take the initiative to keep the debate alive."

The competition, being administered by staff at the right-leaning think tank the Policy Exchange, established by planning minister Nick Boles before he went into parliament, is being overseen by former Number 10 planning policy adviser Miles Gibson.

Gibson says that Wolfson, not actually one of the judges, would like to see ideas for larger developments, "where the challenges are that much greater". One of the judges, David Cowans, chief executive of housing association Places for People, emphasises the fact that the competition is an economics prize and "submissions will have to demonstrate the economic role of their proposed settlements".

The rules say that proposals will have to use exclusively private funds, though mechanisms such as the retention of business rates, and the use of Community Infrastructure Levy are allowed. The prize money is intended to attract international entries from a wide range of quarters. Bids are being prepared by a very wide range of organisations - including universities, the private sector and consultants.

The Liberal Democrats are themselves now developing a policy on garden cities. Chair of the party's backbench housing committee Annette Brooke says that she is preparing a paper for the party's 2015 general election manifesto, supporting the concept of "garden communities" of around 10,000 homes. "These would be put forward by local councils," she says. "It's possible that authorities would need to work together on such an initiative beyond what is required through the duty to co-operate."

The schemes would also need to have local support. A motion going forward to the Lib Dem's spring conference is set to propose backing for a national housebuilding programme of 300,000 new homes a year. But, for the schemes to be accepted, "local people will need to understand why they are needed", according to Brooke.

The Labour Party is more comfortable with top-down approaches, according to von Bradsky. Its electoral base is not in the rural South East, he points out. Labour's housing review under Sir Michael Lyons is looking at how "the pace of development might be forced", von Bradsky says. Shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds suggests that up to five new towns could be created under a future Labour government.

The TCPA, whose director Kate Henderson sits on the Lyons review, is to propose revisions to the New Towns Act which could make New Town Development Corporations more locally accountable, says Shostak: "The corporations would be offered as a tool for local authorities to use in promoting new settlements." Cross bench peer Lord Best suggests that getting new settlements accepted by local councils and their communities is so difficult that Major Infrastructure Projects legislation might be needed.

But with councils facing increasing demand to identify housing land, policies to promote major new settlements may not be as unacceptable as might be assumed, according to Cleary. "Councils may see identifying a location for a major settlement as politically more acceptable than finding lots of smaller sites, affecting a large number of local people," he says.

Ben Kochan is a former specialist adviser to the DCLG select committee

Miles Gibson, Andrew Whitaker and Gerry Hughes will speak at the National Planning Summit in London on 1 April, alongside shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn.

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