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New towns: back on the agenda, but what’s our take?

Paul Miner
By Paul Miner
20th June 2024

New towns are very much back on the political agenda, with commitments to a ‘new town code’ made by Labour in the run-up to the 2024 general election.

New towns (planned settlements with close amenity access and intended to more evenly distribute populations) enjoyed a resurgence in enthusiasm during the coalition government. More recently, outgoing Secretary of State Michael Gove prepared a number of law and policy changes which will make the building of new settlements easier. These include laws making it simpler for public authorities to purchase land for development at its current use value, rather than the much higher notional ‘hope value’ that it would achieve with development.

The Labour Party is also on board, and on 21 May Deputy Leader Angela Rayner set out plans for a programme of new settlements to be developed in line with a ‘New Towns code’, including:

  • Affordable housing: a gold-standard target of 40% affordable, including a mix of social, council and other tenures
  • Characterful design: robust design codes for beautiful buildings and tree-lined streets that fit in with nearby areas and pay attention to local history and identity
  • Fit-for-the-future layouts: high-density housing to efficiently use available land, with good links to town and city centres
  • Infrastructure first: guarantees that new houses mean new transport links, healthcare and schools
  • Green spaces: access to nature and parks, embedded greenery, and new facilities for children to play and families to exercise.

These commitments were later reiterated in the Labour manifesto, and you can read our analysis of the manifesto here.

Untapped brownfield

Our mission is to protect and improve the countryside, and we have always advocated that new housebuilding should use land as efficiently as possible. That is why we believe in a brownfield first approach and are strong supporters of Green Belt planning policies. Evidence from local councils shows that there is a constant and renewable source of brownfield sites available for development, with enough sites currently for 1.2 million homes. At the very least these sites would be enough to cover government housebuilding targets for the next four years. Importantly, there are some brownfield sites where new towns can be realised, and we have supported the redevelopment of both Alconbury airfield in Cambridgeshire and former quarries around Ebbsfleet in the Thames Estuary.

Town extensions can help regeneration

In cases where we need to look beyond brownfield, extensions to existing towns would be preferable to building entire new settlements, and in some cases, carefully planned expansion can help regeneration. Recently, CPRE has supported moves to expand towns such as Ashford (Kent) and Bicester alongside numerous small rural ‘exception’ expansions of villages.

We have documented the huge crisis in affordable housing across rural England. In some cases, new towns may well play a role in providing the increase in affordable housing that we so desperately need. Linked to the renewed interest in building new towns, there is also much common ground between the political parties on how new development should be designed, but too often in recent years, not enough attention has been paid to what good design should look like. We’re working with Create Streets to identify where we can improve on current practice in schemes now coming forward in the planning pipeline.

Housing design is key

CPRE’s housing design audit with University College London (2020) found that most large new housing developments since 2007 in England were of ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’ quality, particularly in rural areas. Key reasons varied from poor locational choices, low residential densities, and lack of supporting provision for bus services and active travel (walking and cycling), meaning that new residents were reliant on having a car. Another major issue has been the 2015 removal of the Code for Sustainable Homes, which would have required all new developments to be zero carbon. Additionally, the Future Homes Standard has still not yet been fully brought into force, resulting in the loss of nearly a decade of new homes that do not have solar panels on roofs as standard.

Good design – characterful, zero carbon, in the right locations and avoiding low density – is therefore an essential element of any major new programme of housebuilding, whether in new towns or existing places. Furthermore, to provide green spaces, we have ready-made and effective tools in the box in the shape of Green Belts, which surround many of our already built new towns as well as our largest towns and cities, as well as the local green space designation, a real planning success of the 2010-15 coalition government.

Affordable housing

We also need stronger policies on affordable housing. Recent polling we have commissioned shows that the public is far more likely to support new housing development if it is affordable. Again, this has not been matched by the new housing being built, which in recent years has too often been larger three and four-bedroom homes, which only those with existing property assets can afford. We need the next government to set convincing and credible policies for developing genuinely affordable housing in all new developments, with high proportions of both social and low-cost homes to own.

View of new build houses on an affordbale housing site