There is growing support, led by the Prime Minister, for new garden cities to play a key role in meeting housing need.
Under pressure to identify five-year housing land supplies, councils are looking to identify sites for major new settlements, says Patrick Clarke, technical director at multidisciplinary consultants URS. "A large settlement may appear easier to get accepted by the local community than a thousand small schemes," he suggests.
But the planning process for bringing such settlements forward is still uncertain. The government's prospectus, Locally Led Garden Cities, published earlier this year, invited local authorities to put forward ideas for settlements of more than 15,000 homes by the end of August. But campaign group the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) is pressing ministers to do more to facilitate their development. "The right institutional and planning framework at national and local level is needed to deliver the settlements," says Katy Lock, the association's garden cities and new towns advocate.
A national spatial plan was the starting point for many of the submissions to this year's Wolfson Economics Prize, which invited ideas on how to deliver a garden city. The shortlisted proposal from consultancy Barton Willmore said such a plan would identify "broad strategic locations" for garden cities. "The plan would identify spatial requirements across a 30-50 year horizon," says the firm's urban design director James Gross.
An alternative suggestion - using the Infrastructure Planning Commission to consider sites, with a parliamentary committee to review its findings - was suggested in the submission from urban design consultants Wei Yang.
As well as the debate over whether there should be a national plan, there is the issue of which type of local delivery agency should be used. TCPA head of policy Hugh Ellis believes there should be "some onus on local authorities to take the initiative and come together to deliver the sites identified in the national plan". Councils are likely to lead the development of the new settlements, but partnerships with developers and agencies such as new town corporations are also likely to be part of the delivery process, Ellis adds.
Below we consider some of the different approaches that could be taken to securing planning permission for a garden city.
To take a major new settlement through the conventional local planning system would be a time-consuming process, says David Lock, strategic planning advisor at consultancy David Lock Associates. Any proposed site would need to be identified in the planning authority's core strategy, says Lock, and the authority would also have to demonstrate to the inspector at an inquiry that it could be delivered.
"If the plan is already approved or is emerging, the authority would have to wait until the next review to include the site, if it wasn't originally included," he adds.
Simon Leask, head of the advisory team for large applications at the government's Homes & Communities Agency (HCA), says councils may not find it easy to align landowners, developers and all the infrastructure providers to demonstrate deliverability. "During the plan-making process, councils should be working with the landowners and developers who would eventually build out the schemes and discussing the implications of the schemes with the infrastructure provider," he says. He highlights the HCA's Larger Sites Infrastructure Programme, which has a £1 billion budget over six years to help local authorities to progress major schemes, including garden cities.
Nicholas Falk, director at planning consultancy Urbed, whose Wolfson submission for a major urban extension was shortlisted, underlines the importance of the local authority assembling the site and raising the finance in partnership with a private sector partner. He argues that there are advantages in local authorities leading the process, because they are in a position to ensure that the new development integrates into the surroundings and that necessary services, such as health and leisure, are provided.
There is potential to start schemes before the local plan has been adopted, according to Henry Cleary, former head of the growth areas division at the Department for Communities and Local Government. He cites the example of North West Bicester, where Cherwell District Council has gone ahead with planning a town extension before its local core strategy has been adopted. However, "this does require a very strong political commitment," Cleary cautions.
Most garden city sites are likely to straddle local authority areas, so councils would need to collaborate, says Ellis. He argues that the sub-regional planning structures needed to bring forward major new settlements are currently not in place "and would take several years to establish". However, according to Andrew Longley, manager of the North Northamptonshire Planning Unit, which covers four districts in the county, there are 16 areas in England in which joint council planning units are preparing core strategies. "The unit could identify a site for a major new settlement crossing administrative boundaries," he says. He adds, however, that development control powers rest with the constituent local authorities and the unit cannot hold assets: "The member councils would have to use their compulsory purchase order powers to assemble and hold the site," he says.
Local Enterprise Partnerships
Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) do not have planning powers, but they have access to public funds and could partner local authorities in bringing forward sites for garden cities, suggests Warren Finney, external affairs manager and LEPs strategic lead officer at the National Housing Federation, which represents housing associations. "LEPs' major concern is promoting the economy, but ensuring an adequate housing supply is an important part of that," says Finney. "Some LEPs, like the one for the South East, are now bidding to central government for housing and transport funds to open up or unlock stalled sites. They are also experienced at working across several districts, which will be necessary for the new settlements."
The 1946 New Towns Act, which is still on the statute book and could be used to establish new settlements, is key to bringing forward many of the garden cities proposed in the Wolfson prize submissions. Any local authority or group of councils could today form a corporation and approach the government with a wish to establish a new town, suggests Ellis. With plan-making and development control powers, he says, a new town could build to the high environmental and design standards in the long term that would be necessary to create a garden city. By assembling the land and selling it on for development, the corporation would benefit from the rise in land value as a result of giving it planning permission, which could then be used to fund the infrastructure and other local services, adds Ellis.
On a personal level, Labour MP Nick Raynsford is emphatic that new town corporations need to be established. "We need to build around 240,000 homes a year, and the last time we did that was back in 1978 when the new towns produced 20,000," he says. However, he suspects that Labour will be cautious about promoting a similar new towns programme: "Localism is here to stay and a Labour government would not want to repeat the mistakes of the centrally managed ecotowns programme of the 2000s," he says. "The Labour party's housing policy review under Sir Michael Lyons is likely to be receptive to the logic of new towns, but whether he will grasp the nettle is uncertain."
New town corporations are, however, established by and accountable to central government, which can make them seem remote from local communities, says Ellis. The TCPA is proposing an amendment to the New Towns Act that seeks to ensure that the corporations are locally accountable.
Urban development corporations
The government is setting up an urban development corporation (UDC) to resolve some of the infrastructure difficulties at Ebbsfleet. The development of about 10,000 homes and nine square metres of offices, planned since 1996 by property company Land Securities, ground to a halt before the recession because of infrastructure funding issues.
The company expects the UDC to bring greater coordination to the provision of local infrastructure, "bringing all the various authorities under one roof so enabling an holistic approach," says its strategic adviser Christine Clarke.
UDCs are effective agencies at bringing land forward for development, but are not as good delivery vehicles as new town corporations, because they do not have plan-making powers, says Katy Lock.
Winning consent for a new community: Three different approaches
New Town Hampton
In the mid-1980s, Peterborough new town development corporation, one of the third generation of new towns, was identifying the location for the fourth township that would complete the expansion of the city, according to Roger Tallowin, general manager at developer O&H Properties. The London Brick Company was winding down the use of one of its major working sites on the southern edge of the city, and proposed it for that fourth township. The new town corporation was wound up in 1988, but the Cambridgeshire structure plan inquiry examination panel came out in favour of the 1,000 hectare site in 1989. Eventually, Peterborough city council gave outline planning permission in 1993 for 5,200 homes. The company sold the site in 1998 to O&H, which has sold development sites to different housebuilders. So far about 4,75O homes have been built. "Higher density development is now being considered to take the overall development programme to 8,500 homes," Tallowin says. The company is acting as town builder, forward funding the infrastructure, including the roads and primary and secondary schools, he explains.
Local authority North West Bicester
Work has started on the first homes of a 6,000 home extension to Bicester in Oxfordshire, despite the local authority's core strategy not yet having been approved. Cherwell District Council, which is driving this project, gave detailed approval to developer A2Dominion group's first 390 homes as an "exemplar" project, despite the fact that it is on land not yet allocated for housing in an adopted plan. "It will give an indication of what the overall project will be like," according to Iain Painting, partner at consultancy Barton Willmore, which is part of the development's masterplanning team. The council had identified the site as an ecotown, and it was accepted by the government in 2009 and included in the ecotowns supplement to Planning Policy Statement 1 on sustainable development. The location was included in the district council's 2012 draft core strategy, which has now been submitted for examination. The draft masterplan for the whole extension could be approved this summer. "Once approved by the council, the masterplan may be adopted as an area action plan, or it could remain a non-statutory planning document," says Painting.
Sub-Regional Plan Welborne
The location for the proposed new settlement at Welborne, north of Fareham in Hampshire, was first identified in the now-cancelled South East Regional Plan back in 2009 as a strategic development area. This was in response to a proposal from the sub-regional partnership the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire, which recognised the potential for the 380 hectare greenfield site north of the M27 motorway, according Patrick Clarke, technical director at multidisciplinary consultants URS, the masterplanners for the landowners. The proposals were included by Fareham Borough Council in its core strategy and are currently being progressed through an Area Action Plan. The core strategy is expected to get adopted later this year, according to Clarke, but planning applications could be made in advance of the adoption, he says.
Welborne is planned as a self-contained community of about 6,000 homes, with education, health, shopping, open space and other community support facilities.
Trevor Osborne, chairman of the Wolfson Economics Prize judges, speaks at the Planning for Housing conference in London on 16 Sept, alongside shadow planning minister Roberta Blackman Woods and DCLG chief planner Steve Quartermain. www.planningforhousing.com