Midlands trio make headway

West Northamptonshire Development Corporation planners face a host of challenges in realising an ambitious vision of growth while maintaining high design standards, reports David Blackman.

West Northamptonshire: ambitious vision of growth
West Northamptonshire: ambitious vision of growth

Name of project: West Northamptonshire Development Corporation

Launch date: December 2004

Key partners: Daventry District Council, Northampton Borough Council, South Northamptonshire Council, Northamptonshire County Council, East Midlands Development Agency, DCLG, English Partnerships

Purpose: To work with local authorities and other partners to make Northampton, Daventry and Towcester better places to live, work and invest

"This is typical of Northampton," fumes Martin Leyland as we sit trapped in a traffic jam. The managing director of David Wilson Estates sees the hold-up as symptomatic of a long-term failure to tackle the town's infrastructure problems.

It is an issue that looks set to become even more pressing over the next few years as Northampton grapples with the implications of being a key part of the Milton Keynes-South Midlands growth area. Over the 20 years up to 2026, the population of Northampton is set to increase by 50 per cent from around 200,000 to 300,000, making it one of England's 20 most populated cities.

During the next decade, Northampton and the nearby smaller centres of Daventry and Towcester are projected to deliver more than 25,000 new homes. The West Northamptonshire Development Corporation (WNDC) has been charged with meeting this ambitious goal. For Northampton residents, major growth is a familiar prospect.

A new town development corporation was set up to oversee expansion in the 1960s. It employed 1,300 people, masterplanned its territory, granted itself planning permission for homes and then managed them. By contrast, the WNDC's entire staff can be accommodated on one floor of offices at Northampton Rugby Club's stadium, owned by corporation chairman Keith Barwell.

Northampton centre set for regeneration

WNDC chief executive and former RTPI president Mike Hayes points to another difference between the two bodies. The old corporation's purpose was to steer growth on the periphery of Northampton, so its remit did not extend into the town centre. Critics say the centre was neglected. In the intervening time, the city has been hit by the decline of its shoe-making and light engineering industries.

The WNDC has been handed the task of regenerating the existing town and bringing forward several urban extensions. Another aim is to boost skill levels and the quality of jobs in the town. Unemployment is relatively low, but so are wages. "Our vision is based on growing Northampton as a regional centre and establishing Daventry and Towcester as market towns and rural service centres with distinct identities," says Hayes.

To deliver this vision, the corporation has been given control over all significant applications for developments in the three towns. In Northampton town centre, it deals with all applications. Outside this core area, it handles schemes of more than 1ha in size. Its remit extends to housing schemes larger than 50 homes and commercial or mixed-use schemes with a floor space of more 2,500m2, apart from hotels and retail developments.

The fly in the ointment is the absence of a local development framework (LDF). Like the other breed of development corporation, the WNDC lacks plan-making powers. The councils' LDF will not be ready until 2010 at the earliest. Hayes insists that this hurdle can be overcome: "We are doing it, but without a plan."

Some areas such as Dallington Grange have been allocated for housing development, but many have not. "We are working on land that has no allocation for development," says Hayes. "We are trying to take the planning proposals from the volume house builders for land on which they have an option. We are collaborating with them, the local authority and the community to create a product that works well in terms of spatial planning."

The corporation's challenge, as Hayes sees it, is to reconfigure Northampton via the growth process. For example, the corporation is currently looking into the pros and cons of relocating a secondary school to one of the town's planned urban extensions, thus freeing up valuable housing land in the urban area.

According to Leyland, Northampton's problem has been a lack of such strategic thinking. It is a stark contrast to Milton Keynes, just 25km down the road. In that town, he says, social and physical infrastructure has grown in line with housing expansion. "In Northampton, everything has been done to stretch things and it is bursting at the seams," he argues.

However, while Milton Keynes has a superior infrastructure, Northampton has its own assets too, the most significant being the River Nene corridor. "We have a green river valley running right through the heart of the town," says Hayes. "I do not think that the most has been made of the riverside opportunity up until now."

The town also has a rich history. Northampton was an important centre in Norman times and contains one of just four round Crusader churches in England. But Hayes accepts that for a development corporation, visions are ultimately a means for delivery. "Planning is not an end in itself. Its role is to deliver quality of life, infrastructure and sustainable communities," he suggests.

It is on this front that the corporation attracts most criticism. "The switch from the local authority to the WNDC has proved frustrating," says Bellway City Living consultant Andy Clarke. The corporation has introduced more exacting standards on issues such as design and section 106 payments, he observes. "It was not happy with some of the schemes that were half built," he adds.

Corporation tackles development issues

"We are certainly challenging the development sector around value capture and section 106," says Hayes. The work done on formulating a standard planning charge, the details of which are yet to be published, is informing section 106 agreements. But many developers have bought land on the basis of calculations using outdated policies.

The problem, according to Leyland, is that WNDC planners lack sufficient understanding of the commercial pressures that developers face when dealing with landowners. But he agrees that the situation has improved in recent months. "The general message is extremely positive. They were a bit slow off the mark and there is not a lot to show yet. But they are shaking off the shackles and starting to engage. A relationship is being built about where development is going to go and the sort of product that is required," he finds.

Hayes cites the corporation's development control performance, which has so far met the level of delivery needed to keep pace with the area's housing needs. "Over the past 12 months, we have approved applications for 2,000 houses, of which 1,500 are on 18 sites in Northampton. That is good progress," he maintains.

As far as the corporation is concerned, the crucial question is not how quickly applications are being processed but when work starts on site. "Often it is the planning question that gets asked, when the real issue is about delivery," says Hayes. In response, the WNDC is seeking to reduce uncertainties for developers by project managing the planning process.

One office wall is covered by a huge chart showing how much progress has been achieved on each element of a planning application for a 3,000-home scheme by David Wilson Homes and Persimmon at Dallington Grange. The corporation has agreed to deliver a decision by mid-January. "It is a long way from the way we used to do development control," Hayes recognises.

It is rapidly approaching crunch time for the corporation, which is currently handling nine applications for more than 500 homes each. In total, 23,000 new dwellings are in prospect across the urban development area. The corporation's future will be reviewed in 2009, the halfway point of the ten-year lifespan that it was originally granted. "We have got a lot of work to do, so we need to get it right over the next 18 months," Hayes concludes.

KEY FACTS

- The West Northamptonshire urban development area is earmarked to offer 30,000 extra homes by 2021.

- Northampton's population is expected to increase to around 300,000 over the next 20 years.

- Daventry is predicted to grow from 23,000 to 40,000 people and Towcester from fewer than 10,000 to 14,000 by 2021.

- The WNDC has development control powers in parts of Daventry, Northampton and Towcester.

KEY PROJECTS

- Northampton South West Urban extension of 6,000 new homes and employment space, including 1,200 homes at Upton Park.

- Dallington Grange Extension to north-west of Northampton, comprising 3,500 homes and up to 10ha of commercial space.

- British Timiken Redevelopment of former engineering plant into mixed development with 480 homes and 23,200m2 of business floor space in north-west Northampton.

- Daventry Development of 10,750 new homes in four predominantly residential urban extensions to the north and east of the town.

- Towcester Vale 2,500-home urban extension to south of Towcester.


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