Next Steps and Some Hard Choices for the Oxford-MK-Cambridge Corridor – Avoiding failing like the Thames Gateway

Part One of a Two Part Post

The Autumn Budget 2017 saw the return of big planning in the shape of the Oxford-MK-Cambridge Study published by the National Infrastructure Commissioned after two years work.   Their remit was never to publish a strategic plan, their remit was infrastructure, however the universal call from consultation was the primary need was to boost new housing, lack of which was the primary restraint on economic growth in the area.  So the recommendation was to integrate new housing with transport investment and significantly increase housing in the area.  With the strategy being taken forward by government supply an overall vision for the corridor with a tier of subregional planning based on city regions such as Oxford – below it.  The timing was ideal – publishing at the time of a Budget flagged as as a budget to boost housing and when the tired treasury tropes – relax green Belt, deregulate planning etc. had either run up against immovable objects or were seen as tired and disappointing.

Reading the reports and final phase background documents on the NIC website it is not hard to cheer openly at many of the comments made, the reports pragmatism, and rare in England its ability to combine thinking about economics, planning and transport in the same document but in a spatial rather than abstract way.

Nonetheless thus is where the hard part begins.

The primary aim must be to avoid problems with previous similar corridor strategies before.  The Arc previously had a stillborn birth over a decade ago.  The Thames Gateway project gradually lost momentum.  The Budget 2017 was not only the deadline for the Ox-MK-Cam but the Thames Gateway Growth Commission launched in June 2016 under Lord Heseltine.   If Gideon’s plan had gone to order we would have had big announcements for both corridors.  Of course Lord Heseltine was sacked  in March.   

He was not replaced and the Thames Gateway Growth Commission has sunk into obscurity.  The Minister of State for Planning is still the Gateway Minister, but the new minister has made no visits or announcements in that capacity.  What was essentially a Thames Gateway reboot is aborted.

There are many lessons from Thames Gateway about what to avoid in Ox-MK-Cam.

It was never a fully developed vision, merely a collation of projects bundled together in an annex to regional strategy and never updated.  I think the lessons from the Gateway are clear.

1.Make the Transport/Planning Integration Decisions up front

The key transport project for the Gateway – Crossrail – wasn’t announced until years after the strategy was launched – by which time it was too late to shape development.  Key opportunities for concentrating development around major nodes – such as in Thamesmead were lost.  HS1 was diverted through the corridor but didn’t stop – except at Ebbsfleet, where with initially development left to the private sector large amounts of permissions were given but few completions.  The private sector being unable to bear the risk of very high density transport orientated development (which we find around the world – Powerpoint cities (existing only on Powerpoints) being the term.  The key decision about the Lower Thames Crossing route has yet to be taken, and four years large areas were blighted by uncertainties over an airport at Cliffe or not.

2.  Making Only the Easy Planning Decisions not the Hard Ones

The government saw it as a fount of easy brownfield decisions.  But large parts of the corridor have few brownfield sites.  Key decisions involving Green Belt – such as at Castlepoint and the expansion of Basildon are still not made.   Decisions about which areas to environmentally protect, such as at Rainham Marshes and Lodgehill were not made up front.

3.  Lack of an Early Environmental Vision and Planning Standards

For many years the DCLG were reluctant to impose any planning standards on the region to avoid reducing housing numbers.  This meant that the corridor quickly gained a reputation for shoddy cheap development that was hard to shake off.  The Green Grid and Green Infrastructure proposals lagged way behind and lacked clear delivery bodies.  The failure to integrate water and environmental issues early on led to an adversarial rather than a create dialogue between environmental and development interests (including government as landowner) on key sites.  It was always obvious from a design perspective that Lodge Hill was only ever going to succeed as a reduced ecologically driven scheme, for example, but here and on other key areas of potential such as Cliffe it became an all or nothing development in full or no development stand off.

4. Delivery Bodies and and Went – Mostly Went

The Gateway was the responsibility of three Development Agencies.  All now abolished, and English Partnerships, who had its regeneration role stripped away under the HCA and now restored as Homes England.  Two development Corporations were formed, then abolished (Thurrock and London Thames Gateway), and then two new ones created (Ebbsfleet and London Legacy).  It is a miracle anything was done.

5.  It Swiftly became a Portfolio of Projects for Ministerial Press Releases not Strategy to be Managed and Delivered.

Over the years, and with the failure to update and expand the original strategy, Gateway documents became increasingly promotional brochures – rather than tracking risks of projects that had fallen behind and wee failing.  It became a creature of fashion and without a champion (Pickles being an Essex Green Belt MP was not championing major development) the local authorities struggled to keep national attention on it. Without major exemplar schemes to point to it became difficult to justify the major investment the area badly needed.

6.  Don’t Neglect Freight

DP World/London Gateway – came along years after RPG9a.  The initial assumption was of a post-ports Gateway rather than one with Ports Resurgent on new modern sites.  As such key decisions on expanding rail capacity for freight and avoiding passenger/rail routing conflicts have not been made.

In the next post ill look at some of the key delivery and hard choices that need to be decided early on in the Ox-MK-CAM process.


Brownfield Registers Cant Supply 5 Years of Housing in Most Areas – Research

Yorkshire Post

1/3rd attrition? Its normally 10-20%.

Brownfield land cannot be the only solution to the housing crisis simply because there is not enough of it to meet the huge projected demand for new places to live, the sponsors of a new report have concluded. According to The Gracechurch Group, so-called brownfield “super sites” should be targeted urgently to deliver the most homes and if that strategy proves inadequate then greenfield sites will offer the best way of meeting the country’s growing housing needs. The idea that councils do not need to release greenfield land for new homes is dispelled by the ‘Brownfield: The housing crisis solved?’ report, the group claimed. It compares the amount of brownfield land shown on new pilot brownfield registers created by local councils with the Government’s recently published estimate of housing need.

The pilot registers show that brownfield has the potential for 200,000 homes, net of normal planning attrition, yet the Government forecasts that 275,000 homes are needed in those areas over a five-year period, and 550,000 over ten years. Neil Lawson-May, joint chief executive at Palatium Investment Management, part of The Gracechurch Group, said: “The housing shortfall from brownfield is even greater than these numbers suggest. Brownfield is unevenly spread across the country and most brownfield is not in areas where there is high housing need. “In the pilot, only two regions have sufficient brownfield capacity to accommodate their five-year housing requirement once planning attrition has been factored in. Brownfield land can make a significant impact on the housing crisis, but it can’t solve it.” He said the registers offer hard evidence about brownfield availability which can help politicians and planning authorities explain to communities why greenfield land is needed for new homes. According to the report, four of the seven pilot authorities have a potential five-year brownfield land supply, before planning attrition is taken into account, including four in Yorkshire. Former industrial or commercial sites in Hull could meet local housing demand for 13.73 years, in Leeds for 11.57 years, in Sheffield for 9.56 years and in Selby for 7.54 years. But there is too little brownfield land in East Yorkshire, North East Lincolnshire and Rotherham to meet five-year demands as they have sites that can only meet demand over 2.46, 3.85 and 3.48 years respectively. Some 67 of the 73 pilot local authorities have published their registers. In total, they identify 4,894 brownfield sites covering 12,960 hectares which could provide around 300,000 new homes, falling to 200,000 when a normal one-third attrition rate for the planning process is absorbed. Most brownfield sites are very small, the report states, suitable for 15 homes or less. This is a problem, Mr Lawson-May said. “The collapse of many small housebuilders during the credit crunch is a problem for developing small brownfield sites.” Just 25 sites on the registers could provide 22 percent of all brownfield homes and Mr Lawson-May said: “Supersites such as these should be targeted urgently and centrally to see if they are sustainable and if they are not, then it would be better to return them to nature and build on greenfield than spend many years debating their future.” The group said local people and interest groups should be invited to put forward sites for inclusion on brownfield registers, and be given an explanation as to why sites are not on the registers.