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Locally–Led Garden Villages, Towns and Cities – Will they now bloom?

Tue 05 Apr 2016

The Government published a prospectus alongside the March 2016 Budget announcements inviting local authorities to take up an offer of support to deliver new garden villages, towns and cities.

This follows on from the manifesto commitment made by the Conservative Party to support locally-led garden cities and towns and supplements the prospectus issued by the Coalition government in April 2014 inviting local areas to bring forward proposals for locally-led garden cities. The two prospectuses have much in common but the latest prospectus does show that the government’s thinking on stimulating new settlement proposals has been refined in a number of significant ways.

Scale

The offer is divided into 2 parts covering expressions of interest for different scales of development. The first part of the prospectus invites expressions of interest by 31 July 2016 for new ‘garden villages’ of between 1,500 to 10,000 homes which were not included in the previous prospectus.  Garden villages must be new discrete settlements and not an extensions of an existing town or village. The prospectus indicates that the government’s intention is to support up to 12 new garden villages.  The second part of the prospectus invites expressions of interest on a rolling basis in new garden towns and cities of more than 10,000 homes.  These may be on a new site away from existing settlements or may take the form of a transformational development of an existing settlement.  No indication is given as to the number of such proposals that may be supported but the prospectus does recognise that developments at this scale will be “exceptional.”  The prospectus mentions that several such proposals are already being progressed namely those at Ebbsfleet, Bicester, Basingstoke, Didcot and in North Northamptonshire and North Essex.

Applicants

The prospectus makes it clear that applications must be made by the relevant local authorities whereas this was not entirely clear in the previous prospectus which rather vaguely specified “localities”.  It states that bids supported by private sector developers and/or landowners will be welcomed but this does not appear to be a pre-requisite.  There is a new reference to the support of local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) for settlements on the larger scale to ensure that potential economic benefits have been considered. At the application stage there is no need to demonstrate the support of the local communities affected by the proposals but applicants will need to explain how the local community is being or will be engaged in the proposals.

Delivery Vehicles

As in the previous prospectus the model of delivery of the settlement is not specified and it is again accepted that there are many forms that this could take such as joint venture companies or, for particularly complex proposals, a statutory development corporation. However, it is stated that a dedicated delivery vehicle may in some circumstances be beneficial and the prospectus announces that the government is now committed to updating the New Towns Act 1981 to ensure that there is a “fit for purpose vehicle for the delivery of new garden villages”.  This will be welcome news for the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) that published a pamphlet calling for this a couple of years ago. It will be interesting to find out more about the government’s views on such legislation and the extent to which the TCPA’s recommendations are adopted.  One key issue will be whether any new-style New Town Development Corporation should be entirely accountable to the Secretary of State at the Department of Communities and Local Government or, as has been suggested by the Policy Exchange, be accountable to the local authorities promoting the scheme.  The Ebbsfleet Development Corporation established recently does of course try to strike a balance between the two extremes with the local authorities strongly represented on the board of the corporation but not having a controlling interest.  

Objectives

The new prospectus re-affirms the government’s key objectives which are not simply to facilitate the delivery of new housing but also to create sustainable, economically viable places – rather than dormitory suburbs - where people choose to live. The prospectus does explain that the government does not want to impose a set of development principles on local areas but rather wants to support local areas in realising their own vision.  This more pragmatic approach is, however, combined with a couple of new expectations that were not articulated in the previous prospectus. There is an explicit expectation that garden villages, towns and cities will play a full role in delivering Starter Homes and the prospectus makes it clear that they will be bound by the new statutory requirement to be included in the Housing and Planning Bill and so will assist in the delivery of the planned 200,000 starter homes in the next 5 years. . In addition there will be “encouragement” of any proposal that makes effective use of previously developed land and/or public sector land and this will in turn complement the government’s plans to build 150,000 homes on surplus public sector land between 2015 and 2020.

Infrastructure and land value capture

Any expression of interest will need to demonstrate a clear understanding of how the project, including any necessary infrastructure, could be delivered and the new prospectus again states – without further elaboration - that effective land value capture can play an important role in funding infrastructure costs. The need to minimising upfront land costs is also highlighted as is the desirability of leveraging in private sector finance.  The new prospectus does indicate that proposals that do not depend on further public subsidy to deliver them will be viewed favourably so good access to existing or planned strategic transport will be an advantage.

Government support package

The new prospectus outlines a similar tailored package of support to that previously on offer which includes a limited amount of funding to support the development of any successful proposal (in the financial years 2016-17 and 2017-18) as well as the support of the HCA’s Advisory Team for Large Applications (ATLAS) and the government’s ability to broker solutions across its various departments. In addition the new prospectus welcomes ideas about additional financial flexibilities that could unlock delivery and any planning freedoms that would be beneficial. It gives as examples the ability to resist speculative planning applications and to continue to protect the Green Belt which are perhaps not overly radical ideas but do give a flavour of what might be possible. In addition the government will work with the places they are supporting to help them access the government’s various existing capital funding streams.

Conclusion

The latest prospectus is significant in that it signals a new willingness on the part of government to take bolder steps towards meeting its aim of delivering 1 million new homes by 2020. It indicates a recognition that it might be easier to deliver a larger number of developments of between 1,500 and 10,000 homes than a handful of developments of over 10,000 homes.  It also contains a commitment on the part of the government to revisit the New Towns Act 1981 and enable the creation of New Town Development Corporations to speed up the delivery process. This new boldness is welcome but it remains to be seen how quickly a new generation of garden villages, towns and cities will become a reality. 

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