Repeating the Ecotowns Mistake with the Government’s Garden Towns Designation Mechanism

Planning Resource

Work on the five new development corporation-led garden towns promised in the Budget will kick off next year with publication of a prospectus inviting expressions of interest from areas keen to host them, according to a Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) spokesperson.

The NIC Oxford-MK-Cambridge report

Recommendation 2a: Government and local authorities should work together, through a robust and transparent process, to designate locations for new and expanded settlements by 2020. This should involve:
– commissioning formal studies to identify and assess options for new settlements required, and potential locations for these settlements;
– consultation with communities, statutory agencies, infrastructure providers, wider stakeholders and public examination of proposed sites; and
-formal designation of sites and the publication of such assessments as legally required.
The Commission is optimistic that Government and local authorities will reach agreement on the scale and location of new settlements in the national interest. However, if agreement cannot ultimately be reached, the Secretary of State should designate these new settlements.

A Heseltine ‘challenge funding’ model for Garden Towns, as used previously for Garden Villages and Brown’s Ecotowns proposals, is precisely not what the NIC recommended.  They rather proposed joint working based on ‘commissioning formal studies to identify and assess options for new settlements required, and potential locations for these settlements’ based on Government and local authorities working together.  In parallel with studies in specific towns would be the corridor wide vision (being produced by 2019) and sub regional plans for 3 or 4 different segments of the corridor.  This parallel working avoiding the problem of years delay of a sequential regional startegy, sub regional strategies followed by a Garden Towns (cities) masterplans.

The risk is rather than the government implementing in full the NIC reports recommendations for joined up corridor wide planning it will attempt to take a Gordon brown like Ecotowns shortcut straight to a competitive process to gt the numbers in.  A process that ultimately only led to four projects, all of which would have happened anyway.

Many of the potential locations for Garden Communities in the corridor will only be acceptable if there is some certainly over infrastructure and funding (through for example land value capture) without this there is a danger of low risk projects coming forward – which may well have come forward anyway,  With the numbers held low to minimise local political controversy and transport impact.

We have seen this already with the last round of Garden Towns designations – all of which – such as Bicester – being projects which would have happened anyway and the programme was a worthy attempt to provide funding for local partnerships and delivery.  This is not to belittle these programmes, however the acid test of a Garden Communities project is how Garden Cities principles, such as land value capture, land use transport integration and being part of a wide ‘social city’ (which was never part of the government’s version of the principles and has mysteriously fallen off the TCPA version now too) are used to leverage additional housing.

All eyes will be on the governments announcements in the new Year.  Either they can start a process which is a comprehensive response to the NIC recommendations on the corridor, or they can try to pursue Garden Town designations ‘locally led’ in isolation.

It will be very difficult for LPAs to repond.  There will have been no local consultation.  In some places partnerships are in place (such as the Oxfordshire Growth Board), others not (such as Northamptonshire). There will be no local studies, no masterplans no mecnhanisms for fundings and delivery.  Local authorities will have to do all the work with very little promise of what funding they will get out of it.

If the government is cannot it will roll out funding in stages.  The first round will be to provide seed corn funding for pre-concept studies.  Then using successful outcomes from that to fund full concept masterplans.  And only then at the end of 2018 and in parallel with the Growth Corridor Vision study and sub-regional plans, to designate them.

There is also a considerable risk that without a proper regional process the designations would fall foul of the SEA directive through lack of early consultation on reasonable options.

One recalls the criticisms of the SEA on the Ecotown Policy by the RSPB

There were many problems with what we considered to be exceptionally poor SA reports (Planning Policy Statement and Programme), and a number of which we believed could have offered potential
grounds for challenge with respect to non-compliance with the SEA Directive. These included:- i) Failure to consider and evaluate reasonable alternatives (for draft Planning Policy Statement and Programme SAs);
ii) The inadequate consideration of the evolution of the baseline without the plan or programme (for
draft Planning Policy Statement and Programme SAs);
iii) Failure to produce an acceptable non-technical summary;
iv) Failure to assess all likely significant effects (for draft Planning Policy Statement and Programme
SAs);
v) Failure to provide the data necessary to undertake the assessment of likely significant effects and the poor methodology which fails to utilise current knowledge and methods of assessment (for
draft Planning Policy Statement and Programme SAs);
vi) Failure to undertake a compliant assessment of cumulative and synergistic effects (for the draft
Planning Policy Statement and the Programme);
vii) Failure to provide adequate proposals on monitoring (for draft Planning Policy Statement andProgramme SAs).
We also considered there to be potential scope for a formal complaint to the European Commission
over failure to properly transpose the SEA Directive with respect to this type of policy statement andrelated programmes. We felt at the time that the Eco-towns draft Planning Policy Statement /
programme SAs may set a precedent for what is likely to be repeated in the National PolicyStatements (NPSs) and related programmes – essentially the same problems of ‘tiering’ exist.