Two days after the start of this summer’s parliamentary recess, housing minister Kit Malthouse surprised council leaders in the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford growth corridor by inviting them to come forward with "ambitious proposals for transformational housing growth, including new settlements".
That the government is keen to see what Malthouse referred to as "swift action" in the corridor was no revelation. The vision for growth across the arc of territory to the north of London that stretches between the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge crystallised as long ago as last November. At that time, government advisory body the National Infrastructure Commission called for a massive increase in housing supply – a million new homes by 2050 – and improvements to east-west transport links to protect and enhance growth in what it called the "brain belt". It was a plan to which the government lent its support in last year’s autumn Budget.
It was the brevity of the timescale within which responses were expected that raised eyebrows among local politicians and planners, however. Malthouse’s letter, dated 26 July, said the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) would "soon begin detailed analysis to explore potential locations for new settlements across the corridor" and asked for proposals to be submitted by 14 September.
The tightness of the deadline has prompted some scepticism among the planning community about how productive the exercise is likely to be: "The timing is interesting, trying to get responses in by mid September in time for the party conference," says Katy Lock, project and policy manager for garden cities and new towns at the Town and Country Planning Association. "You can imagine that an authority might be far enough down the line with a project to able to provide something for government to announce, but usually identifying new settlements requires a much more holistic, longer-term process."
Shortly after the publication of the Malthouse letter, MHCLG deputy director of regeneration and infrastructure Rachel Fisher emailed local authorities to provide "further context". She accepted that developing detailed proposals before the deadline would be "logistically impossible" and said the department was looking for a "hand in the air" from councils willing to consider accommodating new settlements.
Nonetheless, Malthouse revealed at the Conservative Party conference last month that the government had received expressions of interest from "about 14" local authorities. There are a total of 26 authorities that make up the corridor – which covers Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Peterborough, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire – meaning more than half responded positively to the minister.
In an interview with Planning shortly after the September deadline, Malthouse would not be drawn on which authorities had applied. However, Planning can reveal that one of the 14 proposals put forward was the expansion of Milton Keynes to become a city, proposed by the town’s unitary council (see panel). Another authority we contacted, Cherwell District Council, told Malthouse it is "not yet ready to identify specific sites", while Central Bedfordshire Council said it had not responded. In the interview, Malthouse said the ministry is happy with the reaction and emphasised that the government is keen to pay for the necessary infrastructure. However, he admitted that few, if any, of the new settlements mentioned in the responses are fresh proposals. "Most of them, to be fair, are ones that have been in the ether but need something to unlock them," he said. According to Malthouse, authorities, in their proposals, were outlining "ambitious" housing growth plans that were dependent on infrastructure funding.
In terms of next steps, the minister said the government plans to "configure" the nominating authorities into groups with which to negotiate infrastructure funding deals. These would be based on the housing deal model that ministers agreed with councils in Oxfordshire earlier this year, in which the county’s authorities agreed to plan for 100,000 new homes in return for £250 million of infrastructure investment. The government’s ambition, said Malthouse, is to draw up such housing deals with authorities throughout the corridor.
While commentators expected the government to have received positive responses, they are sceptical about whether they contained any new concrete proposals. "I am guessing that any new settlements identified in those 14 letters are well-known locations that have been knocking around for many years waiting to be rebadged as garden towns or villages," says Rob Hopwood, a partner at consultants Bidwells. "Unless a scheme is allocated in an adopted local plan, or at a push in the submitted version, then it is unlikely to have been identified in the letters."
"I suspect there will have been a variety of responses, some of which will be re-badged development proposals from previous rounds of local plans, with others pooling a series of existing or emerging development opportunities into a single ‘growth location’ that may have a longer term timeframe," says Heather Pugh, a partner at consultancy David Lock Associates.
Robert Smith, a director at Hyas Associates, which advises several councils in the area on strategic planning matters, adds: "I would imagine authorities have been reasonably positive because they accept that this area is a long-term focus for growth. But their messages will probably relay back to government the commitments that they are already making through existing local plans or housing growth deals rather than proposing brand new ideas."
For councils, the potential conflict with ongoing local plan processes makes responding with new settlement proposals difficult. "Authorities are at best sitting on the fence to see what comes on the back of this, but at worst we are all questioning how this sits with a plan-led approach which is legally and statutorily the way we have to deliver," says Jason Longhurst, director of regeneration and business at Central Bedfordshire Council.
Another risk that may suppress local authorities’ appetite for new settlements, says Pugh, is the current lack of detail around the government’s planned strategic infrastructure for the corridor which, she says, is needed to unlock the scale of growth envisaged. Government agency Highways England announced the broad corridor for the new Oxford- Cambridge expressway in September, but details of the exact route are not due to be announced until autumn 2020. Although she thinks councils are likely to welcome central government funding and infrastructure support, Pugh points out that Whitehall’s target of a million new homes in the corridor by 2050 is "way beyond" the growth outlined in local plans. "I suspect the prompt from the ministry was aimed at gauging the appetite for that scale of growth, rather than hoping for specific proposals," she suggests.
The extent of that appetite, say commentators, is likely to depend on whether the government is willing to back up Malthouse’s enthusiasm for funding infrastructure to support housing growth in the corridor. "We share the government’s ambition to realise the economic potential of the corridor," observes Martin Tugwell, programme director at England’s Economic Heartland (EEH), a partnership between councils and businesses in the arc. "But when it comes to the pressures of growth, there is a challenge already with the current level of development being proposed in local plans, let alone anything over and above that. We can put whatever housing figure we like in local plans. But without supporting infrastructure it becomes just a number, not a mechanism for delivering a place-changing agenda."
MILTON KEYNES' CITY PROPOSAL
One of the authorities to put forward an expression of interest is Milton Keynes Council. In its response to housing minister Kit Malthouse’s call for expressions of interest, it highlights its plan to "grow Milton Keynes to become a city of 500,000 people by 2050", which would require delivering 100,000 new homes.
The council’s letter, from leader Peter Marland, says the move would "nearly double the size of the city by 2050". The town’s expansion was proposed in the National Infrastructure Commission report last year and subsequently backed by the council last autumn.
Marland’s letter adds: "The costs of delivery may be equivalent to establishing a new town from scratch in a new place. We therefore are willing to continue our conversation with Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government colleagues and yourself about delivering our ambitious target of a transformational increase in housing numbers in return for significant levels of investment."
The scale of growth goes significantly beyond that proposed in the council’s draft local plan which is currently undergoing examination. The submission draft of "Plan:MK" aims to deliver a minimum of 26,500 new homes between 2016 and 2031.
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