Sustainable Communities or Government Panic?

Michael Wrigley

BRLSI Member

14 September 2004

The context for this talk was the Government’s Sustainable Communities Plan published in 2003. The Plan sets out for all of England an approach to urban growth and urban regeneration that will result in balanced and sustainable communities. This talk was focused on the South East where there is significant pressure for growth.

Professor Stephen Crow had examined the Regional Planning Guidance for the South East and concluded that some 1.2m additional dwellings were required within the region by 2016. The local authorities in the region had concluded a lower figure, of the order of 750,000 new dwellings over the period. The Secretary of State predictably split the difference, and concluded that a target of approximately 900,000 dwellings was required to meet demand within the region.

Having determined the levels of growth already being planned for within the region, the Government estimated that in the period to 2016 a further 200,000 dwellings were needed over and above current plans. Four growth areas were defined in the Sustainable Communities Plan, Thamesgateway, Ashford, Milton Keynes and the M11 corridor from London to Stansted, Cambridge and Peterborough. This presentation concentrated on a study, which had examined this latter area.

In introducing the talk, Michael Wrigley showed a conceptual plan for metropolitan London, which had been suggested by Professor Peter Hall in 1963 in his book, London 2000. His argument at the time was that London requires a coherent strategy for growth that encompasses the whole of the area over which it exerts an influence, and not a more restricted area defined by local authority boundaries. The significance of the diagram was not the detail but the concept, which was to identify key corridors radiating out from London within which growth and investment could be concentrated. The speaker contrasted that approach with the Government’s diagram for growth shown in the Sustainable Communities Plan, which merely showed the four growth areas, with no indication of their relationship to the greater metropolitan area through transport links, or of the rationale for their choice.

In January 2004, ODPM (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister), the relevant Government Department, had commissioned a study of the M11 corridor from Colin Buchanan and Partners, transport and planning consultants. A draft regional plan had been produced by the East of England Regional Assembly, which included the M11 growth area. Ministers concluded that an additional 18,000 dwellings were required in the period to 2021 over the target that had been set by the Assembly, and this study was given the task of demonstrating the best approach, particularly seeking to make best use of existing capacity in the transport system, both road and rail.

The Regional Assembly had proposed a further 166,000 dwellings within the growth corridor by 2021, largely achieved by growth around existing communities. The additional requirements would take this total to 184,000 dwellings over the period. However, the study found that there was an existing commitment through currently approved plans for some 122,000 dwellings, thus the residual amount of growth that could be allocated was between about 40,000 and 60,000 new dwellings over the period to 2021.

The study team examined a number of strategic options for accommodating growth including a continuation of the current policy of concentration around existing settlements, the steering of growth to key transport corridors and the development of a major new town. The distribution of growth under each of these options was guided by an analysis of landscape quality and of significant constraints such as flooding, airport noise zones and nature conservation areas. Each of the strategic options was tested using transport-modelling techniques for both road and rail.

The study showed that there was significant capacity within the area for further growth, although it would require the release of land with some sensitivity to new development. It was concluded that a major new town was premature at this stage and would have a significant impact on the transport system. The preferred outcome was, initially, to concentrate new growth around a limited number of settlements to enable them to secure their regeneration objectives. Harlow, Peterborough and Stevenage were mentioned in particular. In the longer term, it was concluded that growth should be guided towards a few selected corridors where investment in public transport could be concentrated. Without the diversion of trips to public transport it was concluded that there would be a significant increase in traffic, which would be difficult to accommodate.

Perhaps the most significant issue arising from this work was the relationship of the anticipated growth to London. In the discussion, the question was raised about the justification for the levels of growth. The study team had queried with Government the reasoning for the additional dwellings being sought, and it was inferred from the response that the objective was to meet the numerical target rather than to create a coherent strategy with a balance between people and jobs. Indeed the consultants had not made allowance within the growth area for additional jobs to match the extra houses as the current projections in the draft regional plan were considered to be aspirational.

The overall conclusion was that the growth area could accommodate extra development, and that the planning for this growth should look beyond the target date of 2021. The provision of infrastructure for longer-term growth should begin now. Of concern, however, was the feeling that this exercise within the M11 growth corridor had been carried out in a vacuum, and that there was no coherent strategy for the growth of the London metropolitan area as a whole.

Michael Wrigley