Divorce and single life bring back the new town

Some 4.4 million homes will have to be built over the next two decades, writes Catherine Pepinster

THE new town is making a comeback. Prompted by predictions that more than four million new homes will be needed in the next 20 years, town halls across the country have agreed that new towns are the answer.

The result: more than two dozen are on the drawing board for Hampshire, Kent, Berkshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, East Sussex, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Gloucestershire and Devon, together with complete "bolt-on" new settlements next to Bristol, Swindon, Peterborough, Dorchester, Dartford, and Glasgow.

Last week a pounds 500m "bolt-on" new town complete with 5,500 homes, to be built next to Peterborough, was announced by the Hanson Trust, while in Kent plans to build a similar settlement were submitted by the Blue Circle conglomerate.

This is the first time in a decade that new towns have been put on the agenda. Intense opposition to the settlements - which included campaigners burning an effigy of the then environment secretary, Nicholas Ridley, as anger erupted over plans to build over Foxley Wood, Berkshire - killed off the idea.

"We last saw this many new settlements proposed in the mid-Eighties," said Gareth Capner, of the Barton Willmore planning partnership, and one of Britain's leading planning experts. "People have realised that many towns and cities are reaching their natural capacity. They are too big, and too congested. But instead of adding to existing villages and market towns, they are saying 'Let's start again' - so long as the new settlement is near good transport networks."

This time the settlements will be far more than housing estates of semi- detached houses, complete with small garden, garage, and show-house decor. There will be schools, community centres, workspace, parks, even cemeteries - the sort of complete settlement proposed by the creator of the garden city, Ebenezer Howard, and embodied in Welwyn Garden City.

Builders admit that the Foxley Wood defeat was "bruising", a feeling shared by Cabinet ministers shocked at the vehement rejection of new towns by Tory supporters in the shires. But a combination of changing Government policy, compromises by developers and planners - and, above all, divorce - has put new towns back on the map.

Figures produced last year by the Department of the Environment predict a 23 per cent growth in the number of households by 2016, and an estimated 4.4 million homes will be needed to accommodate them. Much of this prediction was based on the rising divorce rate, and the DOE figures suggest that in 2016 there will be 8.5 million single people (3.4m more than in 1991) in the 23.6 million households.

"These figures are the most dominant issue affecting housing and the planning system," said Tony Burton, a senior planner with the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE). "They leave no room for any environmental arguments, or discussion about their impact."

In Whitehall, advisers have warned ministers that they have to ensure more homes are built. If it takes a policy U-turn such as encouraging the involvement of local authorities to work with housebuilders to provide homes, it will have to be done. Regional guidance has been sent out to county councils, effectively dictating the number of new homes they should have built in their neighbourhoods.

Town halls, worried that existing classrooms, health centres and shopping centres will become overcrowded if thousands of extra homes are built, have realised that they can solve their problems by giving developers the go-ahead to build thousands of houses in new towns. In return for planning permission, they can demand new schools and a multitude of other facilities be provided for free by the builders as "planning gain".

Builders, meanwhile, have not missed a trick. Instead of turning up at town halls with planning applications under their arms, they now wait for the first move by planners and opt for the softly, softly approach of discussion and co-operation. The winning-over of local people has also been a priority.

In Hampshire, for instance, the developers behind the proposed new settlement of Micheldever Station Market Town publish a newspaper to update people on the progress of the new town plans, and have even issued Micheldever "shire certificates" to 4,000 supporters who want to live there.

In some parts of Britain, such as Devon and Gloucestershire, this will be the first time that a new town has been built. Paul Fountain, deputy county planning officer of Gloucestershire County Council, whose structural plan identifies the need for two new towns north and south of Gloucester, says developers are queuing up to build them.

"This is a novel idea for us. We have never had brand-new purpose-built settlements before, but we have to do something to cope with people moving into the county. Half of the household growth in our county is migrant, and of course, the local people see red."

But are counties like Berkshire bursting at the seams? Campaigners who fought the new town battles of the mid-Eighties fear that the household projections might not be right, and these latest proposals are little better than those of the Thatcher boom years.

"They suggest a mythical future, based on past trends, but the future is not necessarily like the past," said the CPRE's Tony Burton. "New settlements are the least best option: they are intrusive, and there is no way that you can guarantee people will stay in these towns to work, play and live. They will still be driving around, adding to the traffic.''

Mr Burton has found an unlikely supporter in the director of the House Builders' Federation, Roger Humber, who admits that despite his members' keenness to build the new settlements, they are unlikely to be self-sufficient.

"A town of 10,000 homes or less is really just a dormitory, however much it wins support from the Secretary of State or the local authority. It is not big enough to provide large numbers of jobs. People will still commute to work elsewhere.

"The government should bite the bullet, accept there is a need for new settlements and build really viable ones, another generation of Harlows and Basildons."

In the next few weeks, Environment Secretary John Gummer will publish a discussion document outlining the options for the expansion of housing in this country. His paper is expected to raise the profile of new towns even further.

It is expected to provoke one of the biggest-ever debates on the future of the countryside and housing. One key issue is expected to be raised: the obsession with new towns, which threaten the countryside, would never have happened but for a previous attempt to limit urbanisation. Planners and developers need to build further and further into the countryside because they want to leapfrog the green belt, first set up to protect rural Britain from the developer's excavator.

A combination of Mr Gummer, rising divorce rates, and the county halls of Britain has given them an opportunity to do so.

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