Some praise the guidelines’ flexibility, but insistence on a ‘case-by-case’ approach raises fears over lack of clarity.
Guidance on the government’s New Town Development Corporation regulations was released at the end of last month, and the regulations themselves were approved in the House of Lords last Monday. The 14-page guidance attempts to clarify uncertainties about how “locally-led new town development corporations (LLNTDCs)” will be formed, how they will work, and who will control them.
Then housing minister Dominic Raab announced the New Town Development Corporation regulations at the start of June, describing LLNTDCs as corporations that would stand outside local politics and have the power to plan entirely new towns. Industry reaction was largely positive but some commentators elected to withhold judgement until the release of the guidance.
Now that the guidance accompanying the regulations has been released, opinion is still split. While some see the guidance as encouraging, others question its feasibility and worry about its lack of detail.
When Raab made his announcement, Lord Shipley from the Liberal Democrats told Property Week that Raab’s rhetoric placed too much emphasis on building houses. Shipley contended that the aim of a new town should be to build a place, not just a group of buildings.
With the release of the guidance, Jacqueline Mulliner, head of national planning at planning and design company Terence O’Rourke, feels the government has made progress in this regard.
When you’re delivering local settlements, it boils down to local circumstances
Paul Smith, Strategic Land Group
“The government is right to put placemaking at the heart of the requirements”, she says, praising the “emphasis placed on quality and stewardship” in the guidance.
Katy Lock, project and policy manager at the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), agrees with Mulliner that the guidance strikes the right tone. “It is really positive that they have enhanced the requirements around long-term stewardship in particular,” she says. “We really welcome the fact that they’ve included garden city principles.”
However, while Lock praised the regulations for containing a “higher level of detail than we would have hoped”, Mulliner disputes this point. She claims that the guidance lacks detail on several fronts, one of these being funding.
When the regulations were released in June, Shipley told Property Week that the funding mechanism for LLNTDCs had the potential to bring public sector investment and private sector investment together. While he was concerned that the regulations did not describe how this funding mechanism would work, he was confident the guidance would make it clear.
Mulliner points out that this hasn’t happened. Instead, the guidance says that government investment in LLNTDCs will work on a “case-by-case basis”, with each LLNTDC receiving different levels of government investment based on the strength of its proposal. The government has set no caps or restrictions on this system, there is little protocol on how funding should be applied for and LLNTDCs are also free to seek private sector investment.
Yet, while Mulliner complains about the absence of particulars on funding, Paul Smith, managing director of Strategic Land Group, argues that this is a good thing. “When you’re delivering local settlements like this, it does boil down to local circumstances,” Smith says.
“Different projects require different funding and have different timescales. You don’t want to be too prescriptive, and the guidance reflects that,” he adds. At last Monday’s debate in the House of Lords, the Liberal Democrat Lord Taylor echoed this stance. “The key is flexibility,” he stated.
Another problem Mulliner has is the guidance’s insistence on a “strong local buy-in” for any LLNTDC. “It’s not realistic. There remains a lot of public resistance and nimbyism in planning,” she claims. She also thinks the guidance makes the process of creating an LLNTDC too complicated. “Stage 4 is unnecessary and involves a significant amount of duplication with regards to consultation at stage 1,” she complains.
Lock sympathises with this point of view to an extent, criticising the lack of explanation from the government as to how they will encourage the development of LLNTDCs, but she doesn’t agree that the number of stages is “unnecessary”.
“There is a need to get things done quickly,” she admits. “Though, speeding things up for sake of speeding things up might mean that some people’s voices aren’t heard.”
Where Mulliner and Lock are in agreement is over the government’s need to make it clear how long the process of approving an LLNTDC will take, although they are not in agreement over how.
Mulliner suggests that “timescale commitments ought to be attached” to the guidance and the regulations themselves. She contends this will maintain enthusiasm for an LLNTDC from both investors and the public. For Lock, speed should not be the aim. Instead, she believes central government should be clear as to where an LLNTDC application is in the system. “Transparency in the process is important,” she says.
Even if “strong local buy-in” can be achieved and the stages can be navigated, a further concern Mulliner has with the guidance is the oversight from local authorities. When the regulations were released, David Churchill, a partner at Carter Jonas, hoped they would prevent the “merry-go-round” of local politics.
He argued that new local council administrations have a habit of rejecting a planning policy which the previous administration has brought on. Churchill and others expected the regulations to remedy this situation by creating corporations which stand aside from local politics. Instead, the guidance has confirmed the corporations will be subject to oversight from local authorities. Mulliner believes this will continue to encourage “short-termism.”
Speeding things up for the sake of it might mean some voices aren’t heard
Katy Lock, TCPA
She calls for stronger protections on LLNTDCs so that plans supported by a previous council cannot easily be undone by a new council and criticises the current guidelines for not including this. Smith is less negative about the situation. “Short-termism is an issue for planning in general,” he contends. “It isn’t ideal, but you are never going to insulate planning from local government.”
During the Lords debate, the question of the boundary between local oversight powers and LLNTDC powers was raised by Shipley. He also asked how the government would ensure that the LLNTDC members would be independent of local politics as promised in the guidance.
The response from Lord George Young of the Conservatives was that the boundary between local oversight powers and LLNTDC powers would be decided on a “case-by-case basis”. As for independent LLNTDC members, he promised an “open, transparent locally advertised process” to make sure that this happens.
Mulliner responds that this answer is “too simplistic”. “It suggests the proposals are embryonic and uncertain at this stage,” she says.
Lock also worries about local councils’ power, but she doesn’t believe that the guidance contradicts the original announcement of the regulations. “Local authority oversight was part of the narrative all the way through,” she claims.
Despite her concerns over local authority oversight, she believes the rest of the guidance is generally positive. “Instead of doing the full update of New Towns Act that we’ve been campaigning for, they’ve done this,” she says. “We are where we are. It’s not the approach we would have taken, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
With the regulations and accompanying guidance sailing through the House of Lords unopposed, most are currently in agreement that the regulations will help to create effective town-building corporations. However, with so much to be decided on a “case-by-case basis”, disputes over these regulations in future seems inevitable.