Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by Dacorum Borough Council (NT 27)

  Dacorum Borough Council is pleased that a review of the issues facing New Towns is being undertaken, as we believe New Towns have particular needs and pressures that should be better reflected in future Government policy and resource allocation.

  The Borough of Dacorum is located in West Hertfordshire and comprises approximately 81 square miles, with a total population of 138,000. It comprises three main settlements Hemel Hempstead, Berkhamsted and Tring. Hemel Hempstead was one of the post war New Towns created after 1947.

  We have organised our submission around the five key issues that the sub-committee intends to examine.

A.  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 OLDER PARTS OF THE TOWNS.

  The design of Hemel Hempstead new town is a reflection of its time—promoting social, economic and environmental issues of the 1950's and reflecting the way people (then) wanted to live. In this sense Hemel Hempstead is a great success. The town today is very close to the original new town plan in terms of (optimum) size and layout; modern quality neighbourhood housing with a community focus, separated by strategic open corridors and amenity areas; a prosperous centrally located linear town centre; and a very large industrial or business estate fuelled by its close access to the M1 providing a range of job opportunities.

  The 1950's new town principles however do not fully promote sustainability as we understand it today or match today's lifestyles/pressures. New towns have faced similar pressures as other historic towns but in some respects have been less able to adapt. The uniform design, age, often style and lifespan of buildings does and increasingly will provide new towns with unique problems. This is shown in Appendix 1, which sets out the current issues/future challenges against the original New Town key design principles.

B.  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.

  Hemel Hempstead is located close to London and therefore overall has similar economic conditions to those prevalent in much of the south-east low unemployment, high housing and living costs and high average income. However, this masks some real social issues within the New Town, which have not been fully recognised in national indicators or funding criteria:

    —  Poverty In a piece of research carried out for Dacorum Borough Council in 1998-1999 the following wards were identified as being the most deprived in Dacorum Highfield, Grovehill and Bennetts End. All are New Town wards. The factors which led to this ranking include numbers of children receiving free school meals, Jarman Index scores, Council Tax and Housing Benefit recipients and numbers of unemployed people. Highfield ward is ranked in the top 25 per cent most deprived wards in England according to the DTLR Index of Multiple Deprivation 2000. Grovehill is ranked in the top 33 per cent most deprived wards in England.

    —  Homogeneity The New Town neighbourhoods were developed at different times and occupied as they were built, successively, which means that that there are differences between the populations of wards in the New Town. The older neighbourhoods generally have an older age profile. In contrast, Grovehill, which is one of the newest neighbourhoods, is the most densely populated and has the highest number and proportion of children. It is the second most deprived in Dacorum, and among the top 33 per cent of deprived wards in England.

    —  New Town Housing Until the Government's use of the most recent Index of Multiple Deprivation in 2000, the quality of housing in the New Town (recently built in traditional materials, traditional designs with gardens and well-maintained) meant that Dacorum scored low for deprivation. The number of housing factors in the earlier Index of Local Deprivation ensured that deprivation in Hemel Hempstead was not officially recognised.

    —  Education From data provided in January 2002 it appears that there are differences between the children from Dacorum, of whom more than half live in Hemel Hempstead, and other areas. For example at Key Stage 1 the average for Dacorum children is below the County average for reading, writing and maths. They show the lowest attainment in maths, equal lowest in writing and second lowest in writing in the County. At Key Stage 2 the differences are less marked.

  In Dacorum in 2001-02 there are 27 children on the child protection register, and 179 looked after children. This compares with 32 on the child protection register and 69 looked after in St Albans, which is similar to Dacorum in population size, urban/rural mix and unemployment levels.

  In the 1991 Census the proportion of post school qualification-holders in Dacorum was above the UK and County average. However there were huge differences within those figures.

UK Average
13.4 per cent
Dacorum Average
17.7 per cent
Hemel Hempstead
13.1 per cent
Highfield Ward
4.3 per cent


    —  Mobility and access to services Initially neighbourhoods were designed to be fairly self-sufficient with each neighbourhood having a spread of local facilities shops, a church, community centre, a pub, etc. With the increase in car ownership people in the new town neighbourhoods now travel between neighbourhoods much more freely and the local dependency has diminished except for a very few. This loss of local dependency has led to an imbalance in the type of facilities available locally and the loss of viability for those organisations/services based locally.

  The nett result is that those who are most vulnerable to financial social exclusion are unable to travel easily and find their choices limited to that which is left at neighbourhood level. Services at this level can be poor and expensive further compounding the disadvantage.

C.  ORGANISATIONS AND REGULATIONS OPERATING IN THE NEW TOWNS, IN PARTICULAR (I) THE CONSEQUENCES OF ENGLISH PARTNERSHIPS' CONTROL OF THE LAND SUPPLY AND ITS ROLE IN THE PLANNING SYSTEM; (II) THE EFFECT OF THE TRANSFER OF ASSETS AND LIABILITIES TO LOCAL AUTHORITIES; AND (III) THE ROLE OF LOCAL AUTHORITIES, RESIDUARY BODIES AND NON-DEPARTMENTAL PUBLIC BODIES IN PROMOTING SUSTAINABLE REGENERATION IN THE NEW TOWNS.

The Building of Hemel Hempstead

  The Development Corporation, established to achieve development of the New Town, had land acquisition/development powers which enabled it to pursue the objective of a "socially balanced community" with relatively little hindrance.

Commission for the New Towns

  The work of the Development Corporation was substantially complete in the early 1960's and its assets were transferred to a newly formed Commission for the New Towns (CNT) in 1962. The CNT had a landlord role but also was empowered to complete the second Master Plan, which primarily involved development of Grovehill neighbourhood in partnership with the Borough and County Councils.

  As Hemel Hempstead matured the CNT gradually reduced its role. Planning powers had been returned to the local authority in 1962; CNT housing was transferred to the Council in 1978. The main exception to this withdrawal has been in land ownership and former Commission land now held by English Partnerships (EP), who own significant tracts of land in the Industrial Area and around the edge of the New Town. EP has also inherited the commercial attitudes of CNT in negotiating restrictive covenants, claw-back arrangements and ransom strips.

The Role of English Partnerships

  There should be advantages for the community in such extensive ownership in that it gives an opportunity to test new ideas and display best practice. It is important, however, to engage the community in design and content of schemes and achieve some financial benefit. Sadly these elements seem to be lacking in the remit of English Partnerships, who do not have the community agenda of the Development Corporation or even CNT. Financial regulations by the Treasury, eg in target setting the volume of land sales, seems to be the main driver.

  The continuing EP ownership includes some of the most valuable areas (eg north-east Hemel Hempstead—NEHH) or sensitive Green Belt sites (eg Bunkers Park). Experience shows an unwillingness to engage even with the local planning authority on such sites and a failure to deliver community benefits with any sense of urgency, if at all. For example a planning brief/master plan on NEHH, expected to be progressed as a joint exercise, has still not been achieved by EP over 2 years since the joint approach was agreed. Similarly joint action to achieve the development of the Paradise site has become a unilateral project for EP as they continue to challenge planning policies.

  English Partnerships was a major objector (in terms of numbers of objections) at the recent Local Plan Inquiry. While the Council could not complain about the principle of EP maximising land values there were issues about quality of design, mix of uses etc which were not being addressed other than in financial terms.

A Future Approach

  There is a major opportunity for English Partnerships to under-score the local authority's power of planning for social, environmental and economic well-being. If it could pump-prime community developments or defer capital receipts to enable investment in infrastructure, then some problems could be addressed.

  The importance of a fresh approach is also highlighted in a New Town such as Hemel Hempstead where because of the pace of development in the 1950's and 1960's large areas such as the town centre are ageing together and the scale of need is greater. On the other hand this potentially makes regeneration more economic and gives an opportunity for comprehensive planning in public/private partnerships. EP could be a major player with or without land ownership if its remit is redefined as there is currently no suitable national regeneration agency.

D.  THE ROLE OF THE NEW TOWNS IN THEIR REGIONAL ECONOMIES, IN BOTH THE INDUSTRIAL/COMMERCIAL AND HOUSING MARKETS AND THEIR EFFECT ON SURROUNDING CONURBATION'S.

  There is no doubt that Hemel Hempstead new town has had a very significant impact upon both the regional economy and housing markets. The general prosperity that has been experienced in the South-East over recent decades has helped develop Hemel Hempstead and Dacorum into a vibrant area where people seek to both live and work.

  The major Industrial/Business Park, built as part of the new town and which is adjacent to junction eight of the M1, provides an excellent location for both local and national businesses and has been a significant influence on the economic success of the town. Hemel Hempstead, and in particular the business park is a major inward attraction of people for employment purposes. Employment opportunities are diverse but are focused around manufacturing, hi-tech and service sectors. This provides average wage levels that are higher than some other surrounding areas, particularly adjoining districts to the north and east of Dacorum.

  Demand for housing in the area has led to high average house prices both in Hemel Hempstead and to an even greater extent in other towns and villages within Dacorum. There is a difference in house prices, with adjoining areas to the north, east and west of the Borough being less expensive, this results in a large proportion of people working in the area commuting in from these areas. Although the Borough has a good supply of affordable housing to rent at approximately 12,500 dwellings, this is insufficient to meet the demand that exists. The economic prosperity of the town has been a contributory factor in the reduction of affordable housing with over 8,000 Council dwellings being sold under the RTB since it was introduced.

  The combination of relatively full employment in the Borough, high average earnings, high private sector housing costs and the supply of affordable housing has resulted in a skills shortage and difficulties in the recruitment and retention of key public service employees. This has become particularly noticeable in the last two-three years and affects in particular health services, education and transport.

  The fact that many young local people need to look outside the Borough for accommodation in less expensive housing areas obviously has an effect on the demand for housing in those localities and will have an inflationary influence on prices in those Boroughs.

  The New Town has, for the reasons set out above had a major influence on the regional economy and housing markets. The town has attracted significant investment that would have had the effect of limiting investment in some other towns in the region, particularly those such as Luton, Dunstable and Aylesbury. On a more local basis other towns and villages within Dacorum often feel that Hemel Hempstead is the centre of local investment and service provision to their detriment.

E.  WHETHER THE GOVERNMENT SHOULD CHANGE ITS POLICY IN RESPECT OF DESIGN, REGENERATION AND SOCIAL INCLUSION IN THE NEW TOWNS.

  In spite of the increased pressure faced by the New Towns, we believe they have and do provide a high quality of life for their communities. However, their ability to change and respond to the way we live now is different from other towns and needs to be supported and recognised through Government policy and by all public bodies. We would suggest:

    —  The first wave, post war New Towns should be a specific category in any future Urban Renewal/Regeneration programmes, to ensure very local neighbourhood issues of deprivation/social exclusion can be addressed.

    —  That the issues of future New Towns block obsolescence are taken into account in Government housing policy and funding programmes.

    —  That EP be given a remit to work in practice with Local Authorities and other public bodies in New Town areas to achieve social, economic and environmental regeneration objectives as opposed to their commercial objectives, as at present. We believe the Terms of Reference and Key Performance Indicators of EP should be changed from being Treasury driven around maximisation of capital values, to demonstrating regeneration objectives around urban renewal, job opportunities, environmental quality and social inclusion, in partnership with Local Authorities and other public bodies, to locally driven timescales.


 
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