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Government urged to plan for new zero-carbon communities

Words: Laura Edgar
Planning / iStock_000035898050

A programme with the ambition of the post-war new towns era is needed if the government is to meet both its bid to address the climate crisis and to deliver the affordable homes the country needs.

To achieve this, the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) has urged the government to plan strategically for new zero-carbon communities.

The TCPA highlights that the government is committed to the principle of new communities in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and through its garden communities programme, as well as backing the establishment of four new communities delivered by a development corporation in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc. The body is, however, concerned about the uncertainty over “the intrinsic sustainability of some of these places in terms of location, design standards, and effective delivery”.

Katy Lock, TCPA Osborn Fellow and director of communities, said: “In the last 10 years, the government made a choice to prioritise housing numbers over quality and affordability. In that time, since the abandonment of zero-carbon homes, a million new homes have been permitted which could be zero-carbon, but are not. We need a delivery model for quality and affordability rather than piecemeal low-quality housing. We need a more strategic approach.”

The association’s briefing paper Unlocking the Potential of Large-Scale New Communities states: “As we begin to emerge into a post-Covid-19 world, the opportunity to deliver a step change in both housing quality and delivery rates by building highly sustainable new places remains largely unrealised.”

Some local authorities are planning for smaller-scale new communities as part of their growth plans, with 49 garden communities currently being promoted under the government programme. Some are new settlements, 15 are garden towns of more than 10,000 homes, Ebbsflet is the only one comprising more than 15,000 homes and not all have consent. “There is no example of a proposal for a settlement that matches the scale and ambition of a new town,” the paper states.

Most concerning for the TCPA, however, is that the places in the programme are not required to adopt garden city principles. In those areas where local authority officers and delivery partners are committed to the principles, barriers remain. These include a lack of skills and capacity among planning teams and elected members; a lack of effective, strategic cross-border cooperation on identifying new locations; a deficit in infrastructure investment; and complexities in the viability testing process.

National planning policy also undermines the case for long-term strategic planning to meet housing need by focusing on short-term land supply and housing delivery tests.

The paper sets out a number of recommendations:

  • The government should oversee the formulation of a national spatial plan and adopt a formalised approach to subregional spatial planning.
  • The government should publish a clear policy statement on its preferred approach to the delivery of large-scale new settlements.
  • The government has specified a standardised return for developers on larger-scale sites, and a standardised return should also be identified for landowner returns.The government should also require that viability assessments for larger-scale sites reflect the choice of delivery vehicle. For example, where a new town development corporation is chosen to deliver a large-scale new community, the certainties and confidence provided by the use of that vehicle should be reflected in the viability assessment process.

Lock said: “A year on from the 2020 Budget, which committed to exploring development corporations in the Oxford-Cambridge corridor, the choices government will make about ‘building back better’ are still unclear. Will it result in deregulated low-quality housing or places fit for the future? Will the welcome focus on high design standards be possible without the delivery mechanisms to pay for it? This week’s Budget and consultations on planning reform and national policy provide the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past and plan strategically for sustainable growth. Government must seize this opportunity to do so.”

The briefing paper and more detail on the recommendations can be found on the TCPA website.

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