Fyson on... the theory behind the government's plans to build newtowns

The theory behind the government's plans to build new towns for the first time in half a century.

It is not always rewarding to trawl through a prime minister's party conference speech, but Gordon Brown's recent oration was so categorical about achieving an increase in house building that his commitment is worth examining.

The new homes total is to rise to 240,000 a year, with building "in places and in ways that respect our green spaces and the environment". At last, the promise came with prime ministerial recognition that if such a goal is to be achieved, new towns should play a part.

Brown declared: "For the first time in nearly half a century, we will show the imagination to build new towns," and he doubled to ten the number of "eco-towns" already announced. But it has to be said that the idea of giving one to each region of the country savours more of political calculation than rational planning. New towns should not be seeds scattered evenly but individual plantings that respond to particular regional circumstances.

In any case, their vote-gathering potential is unavoidably variable across the UK. In the pressurised south, even Tory shires are starting to recognise the imperative of some greenfield building to accommodate the growing population. Elsewhere, at least while demolitions continue in the cities, people are less likely to be persuaded of the need to build afresh on a grand scale.

Architect-planner Terry Farrell was wrong to imply, in a reported comment from the conference, that eco-towns are the product of a rushed decision bound to deflect funds from other towns.

To caricature what is proposed as "abandoning cities to create something new" perpetuates the myth that regeneration and new towns are alternatives when in reality they must be complementary. This may be relevant in northern regions, but where there is high demand the eco-towns may be able to draw in private funding that would not otherwise be available.

Housing minister Yvette Cooper reinforced her leader's message, recognising the need to plan balanced communities. There would be council house building again but no reversion to the old housing apartheid with big social estates on one side of town and desirable private residences on the other, she insisted.

Good design would make social housing of whatever origin indistinguishable from private housing even in the same street, Cooper maintained. There would be a full range of infrastructure planned from the start, she added.

There is to be an international competition to plan eco-towns, which Farrell and other home teams should enter. Brown would clearly prefer to find that British new town planning is still the best.

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