Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) (NT 40)


  1.  The Urban Affairs Sub-Committee of the House of Commons Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions has resolved to undertake an inquiry into the New Towns—their problems and future. The Sub-Committee has indicated that it will wish to examine the following:

    —  the extent to which the original design of the New Towns is leading to concerns about their long term sustainability, in particular the effect of their design on urban management, how car dependence might be reduced, and the balance between new development and the regeneration of the older parts of the towns;

    —  whether social exclusion in the New Towns is being exacerbated by the current Government approach to regeneration and neighbourhood renewal, in particular in relation to small pockets of deprivation;

    —  issues relating to the organisations and regulations operating in the New Towns, in particular:

    —  the consequences of English Partnerships' control of the land supply and its role in the planning system;

    —  the effect of the transfer of assets and liabilities to local authorities; and

    —  the role of local authorities, residuary bodies and non-Departmental Public Bodies in promoting sustainable regeneration in the New Towns;

    —  the role of the New Towns in their regional economies, in both the industrial/commercial and housing markets, and their effects on surrounding conurbations; and

    —  whether the Government should change its policy in respect of design, regeneration and social inclusion in the New Towns.


  2.  The Institute can readily appreciate the Sub-Committee's concerns and the reasons for the current inquiry. Many, if not all, the New Towns were a success story in their time. For the most part, they fulfilled the purpose of their designation—either as part of a comprehensive strategy to limit urban growth and accommodate overspill from the major conurbations, or to provide a new focus for a declining regional economy.

  However, it is now approaching 60 years since the first designations, and probably more than 20 years since the last major development programmes were completed. In many instances time seems to have stood still in the interim, leaving New Towns as monuments to a bygone age.

  3.  There are some key messages in looking at the future of the New Towns, and how they might retain or regain their status as one of the success stories of post-war planning in the UK:

    —  they have an important role to play in regional development and the urban renaissance;

    —  they represent a very significant investment in infrastructure—roads, sewers, parks, etc—providing the opportunity to build on this historic investment;

    —  they provide opportunities to increase urban densities, and develop new retail and economic functions;

    —  there is a need for continual reinvestment to prevent decline and avoid greater costs in the future; and

    —  there is a need to view New Towns as sustainable communities—not land banks to be asset stripped.

  4.  A new approach is required from all the players involved—local authorities, land owners and developers—that views New Towns not as finished public sector projects from a previous era but as dynamic communities with changing roles in a period of rapid economic and social change. It is important, not only for the New Towns themselves, but for the long term benefit of the regions of which they are a part, that these communities have a strong social and economic framework, and that land and resources have local ownership, flexibility and accountability. In parallel, it is also important to maximise the range of ownerships—in New Town centres, for example—so that more flexible, and more continuous, reinvestment can be secured over the long term, and the New Towns are not held hostage by one or two landowners or developers. This may require English Partnerships to review their role where they manage land and other assets in the New Towns.

  5.  This submission goes on to offer the Institute's brief comments on each of the more detailed subject areas suggested in the inquiry's terms of reference.


Consequences of the original design of the New Towns

  6.  All the New Towns have in common a highly structured overall layout, embodied in their original masterplans. These vary in detail, reflecting amongst other things the amount of pre-existing development in the designated area, but most display a village or neighbourhood structure, with local facilities such as shops, primary school, pub and church, and a town centre in which all other facilities are concentrated. Reflecting the ideas of the times (1940s-1960s), housing and employment uses are usually firmly separated. Another common characteristic is their extensive open space/woodland areas—the first New Towns in the Home Counties were conceived very much as an extension of the Garden City movement.

  7.  Together, these characteristics produce low density, predominantly two-storey residential areas, typically separated by substantial areas of open space. Public and private sector housing (as originally financed) tend to be segregated rather than mixed; employment areas are separated from residential; and, at least from the second generation New Towns, private transport has priority over efficient public transport. The consequences are:

    —  overall management costs are high, because of the dispersed nature of the development;

    —  sustainability is questionable, because of travel to work distances, reliance on the private car, and overall low densities;

    —  exclusion is an increasing problem because of the way in which the New Towns are structured socially;

    —  village/neighbourhood centres require regeneration as altered habits and life styles have led to the closure of the original facilities, and changes in the age structure of the population have made neighbourhood schools redundant; and

    —  there is little incentive for regeneration because of the availability of Greenfield sites within or around the New Towns.

Social Exclusion

  8.  While New Towns have been regarded as "new" the need for and potential of regeneration have tended to be overlooked. The reality is that the New Towns are now little different from other urban areas in many ways. A general level of relative prosperity is likely to mask pockets of often severe deprivation. It is certainly probable that the need for regeneration in New Towns is more likely to be centred on small areas, such as those around the neighbourhood centres, rather than in high profile, large scale schemes.

  9.  A positive approach is necessary to regeneration, with partnership and multi-agency working just as important here as in the inner city. Firstly, the need may not be immediately apparent. Secondly, the availability of Greenfield sites in and around New Towns makes the refurbishment of existing buildings or the redevelopment of Brownfield land relatively unattractive. Regeneration area boundaries need to be drawn sufficiently widely to capture the full scope of the potential in the diversity of mixed uses, the whole range of residential types and tenures, and an effective transformation in the character and value of an area.

  10.  Where the New Towns do tend to be different is in the age structure and social make up of their communities. The passage of time is tending to blur the distinctions as New Town populations move on to the second and third generations, but there remain some effects from the abnormal age and social mix of the original "migrants".

Issues relating to organisations and regulations

  11.   A principal concern of the Institute is the use by English Partnerships—often a major landowner in the New Towns—of section 7(1) of the New Towns Act 1981. Normally, planning permissions must be implemented within five years, but section 7(1) consents are not time-limited. National and local planning policy has moved on considerably since these consents were first available, and it must be accepted that many of them do not accord with the tests set out, for example, in the current PPGs 3, 6 and 13.

  12.  Another aspect of the change in circumstances, compared with the situation in the days of the New Town Corporations, is the reliance on planning obligations to fund the infrastructure required by new development. This now extends to local transport and schools. By their very nature, section 7(1) approvals are outside the ambit of local planning authorities when seeking planning obligations. Clearly, where up to 80 per cent of the development land is outside the normal planning process (as is the case with English Partnerships' ownership in one former New Town) it is difficult to adopt a holistic approach to development. This has a significant impact on the ability to deliver wider Government objectives such as social inclusion and sustainable development in the New Towns.

  13.  Other disadvantages of section 7(1) consents are that they can blight the development aspirations of other interests, and that they increase the workload of local planning authorities—through the consultative processes arising from implementation of the consents—although the LPA does not receive the customary planning application fees. Perhaps this is an issue that DTLR might address in its forthcoming review of scope and general level of planning fees. The Institute would like to see section 7(1) consents placed on the same footing as planning permissions. This will require new legislation, but perhaps a Ministerial direction that the powers be no longer used would suffice in the meantime.

The economic role of the New Towns

  14.  The New Towns were designated to fulfil one of two distinct roles. Some, such as those in the Home Counties, were housing-led. Their main role was to provide new homes that could not be provided in Greater London, though they had little difficulty in attracting employment from the start, principally, but not exclusively, in the service industries. They thus became major growth points, as their populations expanded, and important centres in the regional economy. Other New Towns, in the North East of England and central Scotland, for example, were economy-led from the outset. Their principal role was to provide a new economic focus in regions of declining heavy industry and increasing unemployment. Major new employment sites were designed particularly to attract inward investment. In either case, the New Towns had an important economic role, and were significant contributors to their regional economies.

  15.  This economic pre-eminence has tended to diminish over the years. In many instances, there may now be little to distinguish the role of the New Towns from that of other centres in the region. However, they retain a regional significance, and, in many cases are well placed to make a greater contribution to the regional economy, if the full potential of regeneration, redevelopment and new development is realised. This applies across a range of uses from housing to commercial, retail and industrial, but is only likely to be achieved by the local authority working in partnership with developers and landowners. English Partnerships is well placed to play a key role through its extensive land ownership in many New Towns.

The Government's approach to design, regeneration and social inclusion

  16.  The Institute does not consider that there is any need for Government to change its policies on design, regeneration or social inclusion in the New Towns. What it does need to do is ensure that these policies are applied even-handedly in the New Towns. There seems to be an attitude that says that the New Towns are "new" and do not need this sort of attention. The reality is that the New Towns are no longer new, and that many display the same sort of problems evident in any other urban area.


  17.  The Institute would be happy to amplify the comments made in this submission in oral evidence if this would be helpful to the Sub-Committee's inquiry.

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