Previous chancellors had long sections about planning reform in theoir speechs about planning reforms, or in the red book, or budget accompanying documents on the Arc. Not so this chancellor, but if you look in the new National Building Back Better Strategy (the levelling up and recovery strategy) you will find it.
You wont find here a clear economic rationale for ‘levelling up’ (regional policy) is it equity (which wss European regional policy priority) or unlocking unrealised productivity growth – it appears to be a bit of both.
Levelling Up: the UK government’s most important mission is to unite and level up the country, improving everyday life for communities throughout the UK and ensuring everyone can succeed regardless of where they live. We will tackle geographic disparities in key services and outcomes, like health, education, and jobs; we will support struggling towns so they see social, economic and cultural regeneration; we want every region and nation of the UK to have at least one globally competitive city, acting as hotbeds of innovation and hubs of high value activity; and we will ensure that this plan builds on the strengths of the Union.
The Oxford-Cambridge Arc, where a Spatial Framework, developed with community engagement at its core, will set the long-term, holistic strategy for infrastructure investment to support jobs, unlock clean growth, and achieve net zero alongside environmental sustainability; cultivating the Arc’s potential to become a global innovation powerhouse. Earlier this year the government confirmed funding for the next stage of East West Rail, which will connect communities and create jobs. We are also exploring up to four development corporations along its route which can help deliver sustainable, beautiful places to live and work for existing and future communities.
The four development corporations line was edited out of the budget speech two years ago. It was leaked in advance and never appeared. This doesn’t imply necessarily four new cities as a development corporation could cover four ARC counties along the EW rail route (Northants loses out again).
Well what is the economic rationale for the Arc, well Oxford Cambridge and MK are three globally competitive cities and should further act as ‘hotbeds of economic activity’ outside London.
I’m continuing the series of looking at Strategic arc options county by county.
Northamptonshire from April will be split/merged into two unitarizes. West and North. Delayed by a year due to Covid. This has delayed production of local plan consultation.
North Northants is a success story in strategic planning, with a joint strategic plan and up to date local plans. The priority here is to implement the sites it has allocated. It surprises me that North Northants has allocated sites which require infrastructure to deliver but seems bottom of the pecking order for funding to deliver them. There are further potential sites but the priority in North Northants should be to deliver the current plan growth, major new strategic growth opportunities lie in West Northants.
West Northants has been a mess. It was the poor planning and worse local government management that led to the setting up of the West Northants Development Corporation. Which found it had no powers to expand the town (it was a new town in a phase of growth in the late 60s – 80s), rather a joint planning unit was set up, and abolished the moment the plan was adopted. After which the first urban extension application that came forward was refused. The WNJPU website still exists though as there is nowhere else to documents until the new unitary is established.
Planning is still a mess here. It is like stepping back to the 1970s working here. It has not enjoyed the massive funding on studies and masterplanning that say MK or Cambridge has. There was one allocated site owned by the county that was offered to a housebuilder – near the M1. The noise consultant I employed calculated half the site was undevelopable (less 150 houses) if windows were assumed open, so I pleaded that this be assumed. The officers said no as councilors would insist the people would leave the windows open all day. They didn’t even understand what mechanical ventilation and non opening windows were (as you find in half the schemes in the east end). Hence 150 easy houses were lost and a massive receipt to the council.
Anyway back to options. Northampton is a fast growing town economically with strong small businesses. It isn’t particularly innovative, there is a motorsports cluster around Brackley but Northampton is mostly known for mundane manufacture and increasingly logistics. The case here is unlocking normal growth, rather than unleashing the tiger as in Oxford, MK and Cambridge.
Northampton was proposed for major growth in the South East Plan , but fought it off . So culturally growth is difficult, which wasnt helped by its old underbounded borders (now about to go). The obvious and best sites are the the core strategy, however longer term it was assumed that either growth would mimic the new Town to the West but South of the Ouse (outside an SPA protection area), Towards Preston Deanery, or to the South of the town and the M1 around Milton Mansor. There was, ike MK, resistance to leaping the M1, which is now somewhat moot with two strategic rail interchanges proposed around Milton Mansor and the West Coast Main line.
The other major shift in circumstances is the spare capacity on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) opened up by HS2. There might even be the potential to reopen stations shut since the 1960s, like Roade, or further south towards MK at Castelford where you can see fossils of four lost platforms as the trains come through.
Lets take a clockface look at the options. The western limit of the Town is set by a new relief road. I wouldn’t suggest going beyond it, you get into sensitive countryside around the Althorpe estate. To the North of the Town a nrothern relief road is proposed, which is needed as their is massive needless traffic from the M1 to North Northamptonshire passing through the town. The final route is not quite yet finalised, but its getting there. This will allow some rounding off of the rounded northern edges of the town.
To the South East of the town there is major potential for growth is a sustainable transport corridor, away from the Great Ouse spa and potentially along the corridor of the former Northampton/Bedford Railway – which would be best purposed as BRT or tram/train, linking all the way into Northampton and Bedford va Olney. This could facilitate new settlement scale growth both to the West of Beford and Sout East of Northampton and growth at Olney, which being equidistant between Bedford, MK and Northampton has some of the most surprisingly good bus services in the Arc. The corridor would also help facilitate growth of some major brownfield sites in Northampton it passes through and by.
A major issue is whether strategic development should leapfrog the M1. One of the DCOs for SRFI proposes a bypass around Roade which would allow for major growth. Allied to a new station this might make sense.
A local plan issues paper released to local partners, like the LEP, but not yet the public was not locationally specific – with one exception. It talked of growth along a reopened Northampton-Market Harborough rail line. There really are only two candidates for major development along it, at Brixworth, and at Kelmarsh where the A508 and A14 cross. This area is free of major constrainst and a lot of the land is in one ownership – you really could go big here, there is space for a major new town.
As for Daventry and Towcester, I dont think there is much potential for more major growth.
Weedon Bec could see growth around a restored station (on the main branch of the West Coast main line) with major regneration as mixed use of the old ordnance depot.
Similarly there is potential for growth of Long Buckby south of its station.
Daventry and Towcester receive growth in current plans and I wouldn’t propose much more growth. In the South of the County its very much small villages, I would only suggest growth on a strategic scale at three locations (other than that in the far south next to MK) , around Kings Sutton and more speculatively near Woodmancote, the latter only making sense if you restored rail services on the Greate Central Railway and developed a string of new and expanded settlements along it, from Calvert, Brackley (in Northants) and Woodford Halse.
This would require 4 tracking of the HS2 section (and viaduct at Brackley) where HS2 takes the GCML row.
I have seen it pronounced on twitter that new settlements are unviable, because if you load on needed infrastructure from settlements over 2,000, things like schools etc. they head into the red.
This is a fallacy. People generate need for infrastructure not houses. There will be a need for infrastructure where people are living now, and wherever they live. Those costs will be much higher in a dispersed development scenario.
The second problem is that you need to reduce land values according to the infrastructure cost. You cant compare an alternative use value in a no scheme world without those costs.
Yes it is niave because if you think about it it cant be true. The theory of optimum settlement size suggests cities grow until the point where marginal costs of infrastructure exceed marginal revenues from economic growth – what is known as the Henry George Theorum point. Global evidence suggest there are INCREASING RETURNS TO SCALE (Krugman won a Nobel prize for this) , as long as you invest in infrastructure. Only if you don’t and cities grow to many millions do you reach a point where further growth is uneconomic, like Beijing for example. We don’t see town freezing in growth at 2,000 do we, indeed the minimum size needed for rapid transit (100,000 or so) suggest increasing returns to and well beyond the 100,000 point. Remember it is the growth from increasing returns from rapid urbanisation that have dragged millions from poverty and will fund the transition to zero crbon. We dont all live in villages disconnected from the urban economy any more. City grwoth, in land value is captured, pays for itself – and some. .
The Grasslands Trust team blog about nature conservation and broader environmental issues, always with a focus on our threatened grassland habitats. The views in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Trust.