While the government is flagging up its proposals as focused on building communities rather than housing estates, many observers remain sceptical.
Their concerns centre on the scale of greenfield development envisaged, the adequacy of plans for supporting infrastructure, particularly transport, and the proportion of affordable housing to be provided.
The government is proposing that 169,800 homes should be built in the area by 2021 - 63,650 more than current planned targets. While the overall growth figure is largely as expected, targets for particular areas have been tweaked - Northampton and Luton slightly upwards, Kettering and Wellingborough downwards.
Leighton Linslade has been introduced as a fresh component of the growth area. More controversially, the proposed changes include provisional housing targets for the ten years beyond 2021, indicating another 100,300 homes.
These are "intended to provide a longer-term perspective for infrastructure and development planning", the ODPM explains.
Its consultation paper on the draft changes (Planning, 29 October, p1) stresses that the additional targets are "without commitment at this stage" and "subject to further review". Yet in the next sentence it adds that the targets "should be regarded as minimum figures, given the need to respond to the Barker review".
"It is worrying that the government might be trying to get the figures up even higher," argues Isobel Wilson, leader of Milton Keynes Council, where an extra 23,700 homes are pencilled in beyond 2021. "Whatever happened to plan, monitor and manage?" wonders Julie Stainton, national planning campaigner for the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).
Stainton is worried about the extent of greenfield house building. She points out that regional assemblies in the area estimate that only 34 per cent of the homes would be built on brownfield sites. "Our concern is over what is going to happen in the growth area if local authorities claim that they don't have the brownfield capacity. The obvious answer is that the homes will be built on greenfield sites."
But the biggest worries concern the government's commitment, or lack of it, to put in supporting infrastructure for the growth area. Regeneration minister Lord Rooker points out that the government has already allocated £95 million for infrastructure projects in the sub-region. "This is not a house building programme, it's a community building programme," he insists.
"Housing growth must be accompanied by good-quality supporting infrastructure and services."
Critics complain that the money already earmarked concentrates on road projects while the consultation document is vague on its commitment to providing community infrastructure. Well-meaning phrases promising that "good-quality public services will be provided throughout the sub-region" offer little detail on education, health, social care and other facilities that need to be upgraded, they say.
The consultation document is certainly weak on the detail of what is required, where it will be provided and who will foot the bill for delivery costs. "The costs and land-take implications will vary," it notes. "Detailed evaluation of these issues will be necessary by service providers."
Wilson is particularly disappointed that no money has been committed for the long-awaited Oxford to Bletchley rail link. The document acknowledges that better public transport will be needed in the Bletchley to Bicester corridor, but merely pledges government support for a "study by key partners" covering transport and growth.
East-west rail possibilities east of Bedford can only be considered in the longer term, it adds. "We are worried that ministers are talking about yet another study," says Wilson. "There have been so many studies already. This issue has been going on for years. We have been waiting to hear for some time that money will be committed to the project."
Northamptonshire County Council is just as worried over the infrastructure deficit, calling for a new approach to delivering sustainable communities. "It's not enough to simply build more homes in the area. We need the supporting elements such as schools, roads and doctors' surgeries," the county contends. "Too often investment in economic, environmental and social infrastructure has not kept pace with housing growth."
The ODPM throws down the gauntlet to South Midlands planners in putting local development documents (LDDs) into place to define how growth is delivered. Where growth zones run across administrative boundaries, it argues, the preparation of joint LDDs should be favoured.
Joint LDDs, it suggests, are likely to be needed for:
- Bedfordshire and Mid Bedfordshire.
- Luton, South Bedfordshire and North Hertfordshire, together with Aylesbury Vale in respect of Leighton Linslade.
- Northampton, Daventry and South Northamptonshire.
- Corby, Kettering, Wellingborough and East Northamptonshire.
- Milton Keynes, Aylesbury Vale and Mid Bedfordshire.
Meanwhile, the ODPM has begun to defend plans to designate an urban development corporation (UDC) in west Northamptonshire. A House of Lords select committee inquiry has been prompted by the CPRE and local campaigners to investigate the government's consultation on the proposed UDC and its proposed boundaries, which include areas of open countryside.
Stainton maintains that the UDC is being set up before the scale of growth has been finally decided for the area. "Without this challenge, the government could have set up an unelected body to drive through massive growth in west Northamptonshire before the deputy prime minister announces his decision on whether and what growth is appropriate," she says.
But Rooker recently defended the designation of the UDC at an evidence session before the Lords committee, where he pointed out that local authorities in the area have supported the move. The committee is set to announce its findings later in the year.
Secretary of State's Proposed Changes to the Milton Keynes-South Midlands Sub-Regional Spatial Strategy can be viewed via www.PlanningResource.co.uk.
PROPOSED HOUSING GROWTH IN MILTON KEYNES-SOUTH MIDLANDS
AREA ADDITIONAL HOUSING TO 2021 SRS ADDITION
Current plans SRS addition Total 2021-31
Aylesbury 7,750 7,250 15,000 8,500
Bedford 19,500 0 19,500 10,000
Corby, Kettering and
Wellingborough 14,900 19,200 34,100 28,000
Luton, Dunstable and
Houghton Regis 8,750 17,550 26,300 15,400
Milton Keynes 27,150 17,750 44,900 23,700
Northampton 28,100 1,900 30,000 17,500
Total 106,150 63,650 169,800 103,100