New Settlements: the snake oil of the planning system

New settlements have long been seen as an attractive solution to the housing crisis – Tony Blair suggested a series of new towns to the east of London in 2003; Gordon Brown proposed 10 new Eco Towns in 2007 and David Cameron supported the idea in 2012.

The latest incarnation is the Garden Communities program. Although Garden Communities are more diverse than the programs that have come before – ranging from just 1,500 homes up to 43,000– they are all still new settlements, whether on a standalone basis or as new suburbs.

So why does the idea of new settlements keep coming back as a way of increasing housing supply?
A perceived lack of local services and facilities is one of the main objections to new development – better medical facilities, transport links and employment opportunities are the three things the public say would most improve their perceptions of new development. Building significant numbers of homes in new, sustainable settlements that have the jobs and services to support them seems like an obvious solution.

However, the most recent British Attitudes survey suggests another reason too. It tells us that just 57% of people would support new homes being built nearby – up from a paltry 28% in 2010. The perception of new settlements – among both politicians and the public – is that they aren’t near anybody.

Given that people believe that new settlements deliver homes, jobs and services in a sustainable manner -and in a location that is far removed from existing homes – it’s easy to see why the concept is met with such enthusiasm. They’re the pain-free curative to the nation’s housing woes!

However, the reality is, new settlements – whether designated Garden Communities or otherwise – aren’t a panacea; they’re more like snake oil.

They require miles of new roads, sewers, electricity cables and water mains at huge up-front cost. They need large numbers of developers to be operating all at once to deliver homes in the volume needed, which can be difficult to achieve in what are often brand new markets. Entirely new services are needed from shops and offices to schools and hospitals, all of which need large numbers of users, but without which residents don’t want to move to an area – chicken and egg.

It can take years before new settlements reach a critical mass and become self-sustaining communities. The construction of new settlements has been attempted though out history without great results – yet we only remember the winners.

In 1286, Edward I – a great builder of new towns – founded Nova Villa at Poole Bay. Despite being given more liberties and privileges than any other new settlement, it failed – today it is marked by a single farmstead called Newton. Of 60 new settlements started in Devon alone at around the same time, half failed to come to anything. Even where new settlements worked, progress could be slow. At King’s Town – an extension of Hull started in 1293 – only half the building plots had been taken up after some thirty years.

The legendary W. G. Hoskins identified a series of criteria necessary to make new settlements work, which applied as equally to Edward I’s attempts as they did to Bury St Edmunds in the 11th century and Middlesbrough in the 19th century. Success requires a single land ownership; considerable capital reserves; a long-term view; and – ideally – certainty of demand.

The challenges remain the same today.

Of the 10 Eco Towns proposed in 2007, just four were eventually approved. Some of that is because of the difficulties with delivery, or the wrong choice of site – issues that Hoskins identified as having plagued new settlements throughout recorded history.

Added to those historic reasons was a new one – public opinion.

Turning an abstract new settlement concept into a reality located in a specific place meant that they always turned out to be near somebody. Cue objections and protests and headlines in the Daily Telegraph about how the lives of those in rural areas were about to be ruined by that carbuncle of a modern development.

The Garden Communities are likely to be no different. Recent research by Lichfield revealed that the 49 designated new settlements under the program are anticipated to deliver 403,000 new homes – but to date just 14,000 have been built. Their analysis suggests that, at their peak between 2030 and 2034, Garden Communities will deliver around 16,000 homes per year – equivalent to about 3 weeks housing supply (and fewer than are delivered via Permitted Development Rights). That’s assuming, of course, that they all deliver – some two thirds of the Garden Communities don’t have any planning status yet.

Experience suggests many never will.

Whether we call them New Towns, Eco Towns, Garden Communities or something else, new settlements are unlikely to be the answer to the housing crisis.

They are too hard and too slow to deliver – and we need to increase the supply of new homes now. By all means, plan new settlements to help deliver the homes we need in the future – ten years and more from now – although they’re likely not to make much of a dent in even that demand. What we shouldn’t do is present them as an easy answer to tackling the housing crisis.

The evidence – and a thousand years of history – tells us they won’t be.

Paul Smith, Managing Director, Strategic Land Group