Saturday, 20 December 2014

Stuck inside of planning, with the new town blues again

I can see the arguments in principle for and against a new generation of new towns or garden cities, as one way to tackle our chronic housing shortage.  But in current circumstances, the discussion seems purely theoretical; I can't see how new towns can ever be built.

For example, just to the north of Brighton, a proposal for a new 'market town' of around 10,000 dwellings has been mooted.  I can see the constraints on land in the South East and the need for bold moves, but I also have some affection for the area proposed, sandwiched between areas of outstanding natural beauty and a national park, and including one of my favourite pubs.  And we need to add the potential impact of a new town on existing communities, to these more sentimental considerations.

In any case, the Mayfield Market Towns proposal appears to have stalled for the moment.  The Planning Inspector has just paused his consideration of Horsham's local plan, arguing that they need to be more ambitious in finding housing sites, but also rejecting the Mayfield proposal.  His arguments against it are twofold: firstly, he does not believe that such a scale of new development is needed at this stage (though he acknowledges that expansion at Gatwick Airport would force a more fundamental rethink), and he doesn't think a scaled down version would be viable.  Secondly, as the Inspector puts it (in a late entry for Understatement of the Year), "the deliverability of the preferred 10,000 dwelling option...within two local authority areas without their support, and in the face of strong opposition from two local MPs, parish councils and local people, including land owners, is also an issue of concern."

This is why I can't see how any new town will become a reality.  Proposing a new 10,000 home development requires top-down planning.  It is not just a matter of responding to known and projected local demand for new homes (which will rarely if ever demand that scale of development on its own), but of considering and redefining what role a particular site might play in the economic future of its region, of the whole country.  This is a matter of creating and redirecting demand, not just responding to it.

And that would probably require pushing a scheme forward in the teeth of local opposition, especially in the areas of South East England where land supply is most constrained.  Local councils have no incentive to do that, and Government's 'localist' planning policy gives little scope for forcing their hand.  Labour's greater enthusiasm for 'a new Generation of Garden Cities and Garden suburbs', as detailed in the Lyons Review, is also tempered by insistence that their designation must be 'locally-led'. Even where local authorities are more supportive, planning processes take years; if there is a row, we are talking generations.

So perhaps all this jostling is a matter of gesture politics (town vs country, preservation vs 'hard-working families' etc).  But it does risk distracting attention from more pressing issues.  If we are not going to be a little more directive and ride a little more rough-shod over local opposition, we are not going to build new towns.  And if we are not going to build new towns, or at least not in the foreseeable future, we need to stop the make-believe, and focus more sharply on how to build more houses in our existing towns and cities.