Development corporations do work, by Graeme Bell

Fifty years ago I started my first job in planning. I left London in the swinging sixties and headed back to my native North East to see if I would enjoy working at a particular coalface, then called town and country planning.

For the princely sum of £1,000 a year I worked for Washington New Town Development Corporation. It turned out to be an inspired decision. From the moment I was welcomed into the studio – not office, mark you, as we all had drawing boards because we were considered designers – it was a roller coaster of action. On the drawing board one day, on-site the next, or that’s how it felt.

The buzz of working in multi-disciplinary teams on a huge project for public good, with everyone seeking to deliver the highest possible standards within cost yardsticks, was exhilarating. It was only later, when I joined a local planning authority post-graduation, that I realised development corporations were special.

That’s not to say councils didn’t do good work. Fifty years ago all local planning authorities had adopted up-to-date plans. They were well staffed too, not only with plans and development control personnel but with research, graphics and specialist staff. There was strength in depth. But the pace of delivery within a democratically elected organisation was necessarily slower. As politicians often explain, you can’t afford to be ahead of where people want to be.

Fifty years on, the planning system and much of our infrastructure is creaking from under-resource. Affordable housing provision is so poor that it’s unsurprising that many millennials feel they will be worse off than their parents.

But one encouraging straw in the wind must be the rediscovery of development corporations as a vehicle for delivering large new settlements. Addressing the criticism that government-appointed corporations suffered from a democratic deficit, councils in Essex are coming together to create locally-led corporations to deliver these much-needed new settlements.

It will not be an easy ride. But perhaps the solution will be marginally less controversial than dispersing the development, and will make it easier to accommodate the hike in numbers if and when the new standard housing assessment arrives.

Dispersal is much less efficient for raising the vital funds to pay for affordable housing and infrastructure. A development corporation that acquires land at only a modest premium over existing use value secures funds for the public good from the outset, rather than the council having to fight for funds later through the development management process.

After all, the Treasury has profited by billions from the new towns programme and continues to do so. Essex isn’t the only way, but it’s a promising initiative that should be given every support.

Graeme Bell OBE is a vice president of the Town and Country Planning Association and a past president of the Planning Officers Society

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