Memorandum by John Walker (NT 30)
This memorandum is submitted in a personal capacity.
My relevant background is as the former Chief Executive of the
Commission for the New Towns (1992-99), and before that I was
the Planning Director (1980-87) and then Deputy Chief Executive
(1987-92) of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation. I am now
the Chief Executive of the British Urban Regeneration Association
(BURA), though the views expressed below are submitted in a personal
capacity. This note has been assembled at speed, and probably
bears the marks of a quick brainstorm rather than a structured
argument. However I would be delighted to expand on it should
that be of interest to the Committee.
The Inquiry is expected to look into various
aspects of the New Towns. My comments address some of these, but
also suggest other areas that the Committee might wish to explore.
2. THE NEW
The New Towns programme was the largest and
longest running government sponsored urban development initiative
that this country has ever seen. Both the legislation and the
main vehicle for delivery of the programme (the New Town Development
Corporation) were purpose designed for the task. In combination
they delivered enormous progress, in physical, economic and social
forms which would have been regarded as highly "sustainable",
"joined-up" and "holistic", had those terms
been in use at the time. Even by todays different standards, reflecting
massive changes in economic, social and environmental conditions,
the New Towns display most of the essential qualities of sustainable
development, with a few notable exceptions. One such is public
transport, but this failing owes more to the attitude of central
and local government over 20+ years towards investment, and a
weakness in the integration of public investment programmes, as
it does to any aspect of layout and density of development.
It is my strong belief that much could be learned
from the New Town experience which would be of great value in
today's search for sustainable approaches to the delivery of urban
economic development, housing provision, mixed use and the urban
renaissance across Britain. It is regrettable that very little
attention has in fact been paid to identifying these lessons.
I would commend this additional line of enquiry to the Committee
The lack of previous review may be largely due
to ignorance, which gives rise to indifference, since many of
the government officials who were involved in administering new
town policy retired or moved on long before the programme was
completed. Those who replaced them were more interested in "new"
ideas rather than learning from old ones; ie the widespread existence
of the "not-invented-here" syndrome.
3. LESSON WHICH
Below I offer my own perspective on some of
the lessons, though this is not an attempt to produce the conclusions
of review called for above.
(i) The Urban Renaissance
In terms of the "urban renaissance"
it would be particularly timely to look at New Towns, because
several years of urban renaissance policy and programme review
have now led to an inevitable and essential focus on delivery.
The New Town Corporations delivered holistic development and private
investment on a massive scale rarely seen before or since. Current
delivery agents, such as URCs would have much to learn.
Their development was driven by locally
based, but relatively independent, single-minded agencies. The
Development Corporations had special powers, to acquire land,
gain planning permissions and carry out development. They were
able to demonstrate enormous success in attracting private investment,
particularly inward investors, but also small enterprises. They
provided a framework within which the private sector could invest
with relative confidence. They could take a long term strategic
view. They were engines of real economic growth. The "single
door" capability of the Development Corporations was immensely
attractive to investors of all kinds.
Collectively they learnt from their
own mistakes, and in later phases took an approach to development
which recognised many key ingredients of "sustainability"
before that term was in general use. These include
(i) Local access to facilities,
(iii) Mixed tenure housing, at a fine grain.
(iv) Low energy buildings,
(v) Facilitation of community development
and voluntary sector activity. Milton Keynes is an excellent example
(vi) Balance between jobs and economically
active population, which is such an obvious contribution to sustainability,
yet so rarely articulated elsewhere.
They dealt with, and provided valuable
examples of both new development and re-development, on both "green
field" and "brown land". For the latter, see for
example the experience in new towns such as Corby, Washington,
Warrington and Telford.
(ii) Public funding of development projects
Full use was made of the ability to invest in
land and property at or close to existing use values, thus securing
much of the increase resulting from public investment for wider
public benefit, in the form of community facilities and returns
to the Exchequer.
The New Towns Programme was the only urban programme
(to the best of my knowledge) which relied almost entirely on
loan (rather than grant) finance from government. Moreover, it
has repaid the loans to government, with interest, nearly 40 years
before they were due, leaving residual assets in government ownership
worth well over £1 billion. In a very real sense the government
has made a direct profit from the New Towns programme, in addition
to the many economic, social and physical benefits that it was
seeking at the time, such as better housing, job growth, inward
investment etc. Of how many other urban programmes can we say
that? This financial performance was, in part, a result of that
powers given to the Corporations to acquire land on specific terms,
to develop directly or in partnership with the private sector,
and to apply to government for large scale outline planning consents
with the ability to settle the detail directly. Such concentration
of delivery powers seems unthinkable now, but, with suitable governance
owing more allegiance to the local community, it is exactly what
is needed to stimulate delivery in many areas in need of large-scale
change, and is not a million miles away from the URC model.
There were also negative lessons to learn, including
some features of asset transfer to Local Authorities, which relate
directly to many of the problems now perceived by those Local
Authorities in New Town areas. Another was the way the local community
shared in the increased values which were created.
There were several different regimes over the
years under which assets were transferred from Development Corporations
(and latterly the Commission for the New Towns) to Local Authorities
and others. I don't claim to be expert in all of them, but it
is clear to me that their impact on Local Authority finance varied
widely. Some New Towns did extremely well out of transfers (and
generally kept fairly quiet about it). Others did less well. One
of the major flaws was that the lump sum endowments, often handed
to local authorities, were not ring fenced for the use intended;
ie the long term maintenance of the assets. This appears to have
taken place by common consent of central government and local
authorities, and led to the latter typically spending the endowment
on other services, often over a very short period. As a result,
many Local Authorities now feel burdened by maintenance costs
of facilities for which they have already been funded; though
I doubt that many of their councillors even understand that this
Arguably the more reasonable concern of Local
Authorities is that they do not share fairly in the value created
by government's development of land in their towns. I state above
that government has done well financially out of the new towns
(despite a loan write off which I would be happy to deal with,
but don't want to waste space on here). There is therefore a common
sense and a moral argument that says the local communities ought
to benefit more directly from value released by the further development
and sale of the remaining assets, which vary tremendously in scale
and value between the various new towns.
(iii) You are "in" or you are "out"
A further lesson to be learned is the danger
inherent in the "on-off" attitude which has characterised
policy. There was a "turning off the tap" by central
government. This was not so much the restriction of capital funding,
which could have been expected as the towns became better able
to, and did attract private investors. It was a 180 degree change
of attitude, from that of Government as promoter and guardian
of the long-term welfare of the town, to detached landlord with
no apparent policy interest in long-term success.
For over 30 yrs governments of both parties
pursued a positive policy of new towns development, taking an
interest both in the new communities, which they were helping
to create, and in the older conurbations whose problems they were
helping to alleviate. This was immensely helpful to such large
projects. Fairly suddenly from the late 1970s onwards governments
lost interest in the development of their new towns, and began
to see them purely as a source of capital receipts.
This change gathered force in the 1980s, and
was epitomised by the rapid closure of the remaining Development
Corporations. The handover of assets from Development Corporations
was mainly to The Commission for the New Towns rather than to
the local authorities. That in itself could have been seen as
good sense; cutting overhead costs by administering the final
phases of growth from a centralised agency, with ever closer involvement
of the local authorities. However the legislation under which
CNT was set up gave it a much narrower role that the Development
Corporations, and Government policy narrowed this view much more.
Government took it as an opportunity to turn its back on new towns,
and regard them primarily as a source of income from asset sales.
This policy was well illustrated by the Department of Environment's
own Annual Reports, which, in the mid 1990s, contained numerous
sections on urban policy, then moved finally to a separate section
on new towns. This section dealt only with how much money had
been raised from sales of property and how much property had been
sold in that year. The fact that the sales were mainly of land,
and that these sales were facilitating what was still one of the
biggest government sponsored development programmes in the whole
country (5,000 homes and 10,000 jobs per annum) was nowhere mentioned!
(iv) Who gains from further receipts?
Examination of government accounts show that
a large portion of their expenditure on "inner city"
programmes has been funded from new town receipts. In many ways
this is to be applauded, as recycling of the returns from one
urban programme to help fund the next. If this were a transfer
from rich areas to poor it would be even more laudable. However,
no one has looked at this transfer in terms of its fairness, or
in terms of the needs of the donor areas and recipient areas.
There are real needs arising in the New Towns that are due to
their unusual history. For instance nearly all their infrastructure
was built within a relatively short period. When new this was
a great advantage, but now much of the infrastructure in the older
new towns is ageing, and it's all happening again in a short period.
There needs to be a proper consideration of how much of the value
remaining in government assets (now vested in EP) should be channelled
directly back into those new towns to cope with these unusual
problems, and how much should be returned to the Treasury.
The owner of the assets is EP, formerly CNT.
As the previous Chief Executive of CNT I believe that government
policy has paid little attention to the needs of the new towns
for many years. The legislation under which CNT was set up and
operated was focussed initially on guardianship of the assets,
but then became more focussed on 'disengagement from public ownership'
and recycling of receipts to government. The guidance and direction
to CNT, via management statements, financial memoranda and annual
corporate plans was ever more narrowly focussed. Despite this,
CNT's Board and staff took a real interest in the welfare of the
towns, and still possesses skills of great relevance to their
I believe there is a real danger that 50 years
of investment; financial, social, physical and economic; by public
and private sector could be undermined by neglect. Also the lessons
available from that unique experience are in danger of being lost.
The existing new towns ought to be used as a firm basis for continuing
progress in urban development, but will fail do this if their
vitality is undermined. In this respect government should
Recognise the unique nature of new
town infrastructure, which though relatively new, will all reach
the point at which major re-investment is needed within a short
Re-examine the relationship between
receipts from further sales of government owned land, benefits
to the local areas and benefits to the Exchequer.
Recognise that new towns are the
product of government policies and investments, and that such
a major programme should not be allowed to fade without a serious
attempt to understand and benefit from lessons learnt. In my opinion
many lessons could be used to speed delivery in current policy
Recognise that it possesses, in what
is now EP, some valuable and scarce skills in the delivery of
integrated and sustainable communities making best use of public
and private expertise.