Can we trust Prescott’s New Communities plan?

It is difficult not to be a tad wary of John Prescott’s New Communities scheme which is supposed to reshape housing policy for the next generation. After all, he was the man who was going to get us out of our cars and deliver ‘integrated transport’ for the nation, a concept which has never quite got off the ground.

Will his New Communities plan fare any better? The plan, which like everything else not related to war and Iraq over the past six months received much less attention than it deserved, is, as with Prescott’s transport policy, a brave attempt to take on a series of difficult issues. For example, it recognises that rather than trying to encourage as much development as possible in deprived regions in the north, the main growth is going to be in the south east and therefore it has to be tackled there.

Moreover, the plan accepts that not all new homes can be shoehorned into existing communities and brownfield sites and that some entirely new developments will be required. In particular four areas – the south Midlands around Milton Keynes, the Thames Gateway, the London – Stansted – Cambridge corridor and Ashford in Kent.

On the face of it, this is relatively modest stuff. There are no grandiose schemes for new mega cities in the middle of nowhere which in the past have often emerged in government attempts at long term planning. Sir Peter Hall, professor of planning at University College London, points out that only 11 per cent of the land in the region has been developed and at most this plan would bring the total to 12 per cent by the end of the 30 year period.

Nevertheless, the plan has angered environmentalists who are concerned that it will produce yet more of the sort of dormitory communities which are car-dependent soulless places with little cohesion. The Council for the Protection of Rural England, for example, reckons that 75 per cent of new development could be on brownfield sites, compared with the current 60 per cent, a target which appears to have been met despite the scepticism of the housebuilders. Sir Peter counters that this is impossible because it would create the type of densities unheard of since the 19th century.

Prescott’s plan has failed to take on the issue of density and that is a failure of the imagination. The most successful cities are densely built up areas, like say the Paris arrondissements and Manhattan, where people do not need cars to get around. High density not only allows for viable public transport but also creates a host of business opportunities for all kinds of small enterprises which thrive on ready access to lots of people. Note, for example, how many market towns seem to thrive in France and Italy, both as tourist attractions and commercial centres.

There should be no fear about recreating these dense areas which, in any case, is a response to market needs. Ken Livingstone in London has recognised this by encouraging high rise developments and accepting that high density is not, as it was in the 19th century, a sign of poverty and deprivation.

This brings us neatly on to the most strange omission from the New Communities plan, its lack of emphasis on transport. Given that Prescott was in charge of transport for the whole of Labour’s first term, this is an odd omission and according to insiders was the subject of several rows between the departments.

Prescott wanted to ensure that particular transport schemes, essential for the development of the four new areas, were included in the government’s plans. The Department for Transport, hived off from environment and local government since the 2001 election, refused as it is already struggling to keep within its 10 year plan, reissued at the end of December. Any new additional schemes would have pushed the plan well over budget.

This is an ongoing dispute within government which is now the subject of discussions within a Cabinet committee to be resolved. The key decision is over the London Crossrail scheme, effectively a main line railway connecting East and West with a tunnel between Paddington and Liverpool Street, estimated to cost at least £10bn. This was originally rejected on the grounds of cost but it is now back in favour, pushed by Tony Blair who is anxious to see the Thames Gateway redevelopment succeed. There are important transport proposals in the other areas, such as the domestic services on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link for Ashford and a light rail scheme in Milton Keynes, but Crossrail is the crunch issue. Without it, much of the New Communities plan will be like Prescott’s transport White Paper of 1998 – good in theory, but not achieved in practice.

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