Labour should commit to establishing 20 New Towns if it wants to tackle the housing crisis

New Towns are a phenomenally successful Labour economic success story. They created communities where 2.8 million people now live.


Gavin Callaghan was the former leader of Basildon Council

The next Labour Government should commit to establishing 20 New Towns, each housing 200,000 people, meaning homes for 4m people, writes Gavin Callaghan.

George Osborne was a lot of things to a lot of people. What he was to Labour was a constant problem. He set traps that invariably the party walked into headfirst and rarely recovered from. For all this Government’s mishandling of the economy and their lack of empathy for the economic challenges facing the nation, they have set another trap that Labour is walking into.

By abolishing the housing targets, they have done something popular with residents in virtually every planning authority outside of the major cities and London Boroughs. Labour’s call for them to be re-instated is exactly where the Tories want Labour to be. It will cost Labour votes in the seats that Keir Starmer needs to win to get well beyond the magic 326 and have a hope of forming a workable majority government.

Labour can be smarter than this on housing.

That we have a housing crisis in this country is a truism that everyone recognises. The working-class dream of home ownership is seemingly beyond reach for so many. Home ownership in England has been falling for years, as prices have risen, and banks have asked for increasingly large deposits. A stream of initiatives to help people to buy have failed.

The problem of supply remains intractable. Disguised as pressure from backbenchers, prisoners of constituents determined to protect what they have, the Tories have abandoned house building targets. Housebuilding companies are averse to building in large numbers that would suppress prices and damage their profits. They prefer low-risk opportunities to deliver returns to their shareholders. Their ideal project is to build out sites of 50-300 homes over a relatively short period, selling as they go.

The result, despite the political bluster, is a stall in housebuilding with the number of new homes built in England set to fall to 120,000 a year – the lowest level since the second world war.

The problem is crying out for leadership and collective will to break through the barriers and structural inertia that stands in the way of significant acceleration in the supply of new homes.

Too many Tory Councils aren’t interested in passing local plans. Privately, Tory councillors will tell you they want housing, but publicly they oppose local plans, scared of losing votes to their natural nimby constituency. We have created a National Policy Framework that is so intrinsic, so complex, so full of barriers to development that it now takes longer to pass a local plan than it does to agree a post-Brexit international trade deal. It is, quite simply, ridiculous.

If we are to meet the challenge of adequate housing supply and achieve the possibility of home ownership for all, we need a serious debate about what is the right democratic and accountable route to granting planning permissions. Most MPs and civil servants drafting National Planning Policy Frameworks or planning reforms, have never had the dubious pleasure of sitting in a planning meeting on a cold Tuesday in November until 3am because members and officers are arguing over the minutiae of a planning application. I have. It is grim.

But to write out local democratic influence through pre-determination is a non-starter. Submitting contentious decisions to planning inspection is similarly flawed. Inspections are antagonistic exercises and undemocratic.

The good news for the country is that Labour has history with housing. Good history. One that doesn’t need to fall foul of political traps and nimbyism.

The Atlee government was elected in 1945 and under planning minister Lewis Silkin, introduced the New Towns Act in 1946 that initiated a programme of building new towns. Over 800,000 new homes were built between 1946 and 1951.

New Towns are a phenomenally successful Labour economic success story. They created communities where 2.8 million people now live. I was brought up in one, Basildon, one of the first waves of New Towns green lighted by the Atlee Government. Consider the collective GDP of those New Towns now, that include Stevenage, Basildon, Harlow, Telford and Bracknell Forest, and you demonstrate that when you build housing close to well paid, good quality work, with schools, town centres and communities around you, you have an economic model that works.

The New Towns were originally brought forward in three ‘waves’ that created 20 New Towns.

The next Labour Government should commit to waves 4-6 establishing a further 20 New Towns in the Atlee/Silkin mould. Each New Town could house 200,000 people, meaning homes for 4m people. That more than caters for the 3.5m increase in population we have experienced in the last 10 years.

New Towns would mean we wouldn’t have to build up or build in existing towns piling pressure on existing infrastructure. Instead, we could pick 20 locations, across all four corners of the UK and we could commit to doing as Atlee did when he built homes for heroes.

And just as the Atlee government did through the New Towns Act of 1946, we should use a development corporation model to establish these new New Towns. Controversial, yes, but necessary to meet the scale of the challenge we face. These development corporations would be spearheaded by and accountable to communities. They would work closely with the private sector partners and housing associations, commissioning a wider range of developers, including SMEs, to build out sites at pace.

Their first task would be, just as in the 1940s, to draw up development frameworks for the right mix of housing, economic activity, transport, infrastructure and open space. Add to a requirement for net carbon zero developments and these New Towns can pioneer a new, greener, healthier, and more sustainable way of living across the UK.

Where are these sites? Every year councils undertake a ‘call for sites’ model in their boroughs for future local plan areas. Landowners across the country are putting forward farms, fields and industrial sites. This information should be collated centrally and used by the Combined Authorities and pan-regional development corporations, to determine where in their regions a New Town could be built.

The private sector alone cannot deliver development like this at scale, that is evident. For larger new settlements, development corporations can provide the right combination of power, speed, and commitment to quality. Together with a stewardship model that provides the resources to pay for and maintain the features that make a place worth living in, and, through links to public participation, enables a strong sense of community.

Developers could apply to be part of the New Town Development Corporation framework where a much more liberated regulatory framework (that enables easier development across local administrative boundaries, for example) can govern housebuilding but where the law could be much stricter on land banking and compulsory purchase. Lock in a quid pro quo for developers – if you’re at all interested in, or have a record of land banking, don’t bother applying. The company’s housebuilding delivery record could also be part of the judgment as to whether companies make it onto the framework. If you build quickly and build quality, you have a shot at being on the framework. Developers would find a government in the mood to reward housing delivery, not political party donations – a marked contrast to the last decade.

Development corporations can have corporate structures that generate a variety of benefits, such as bringing together often disjointed economic development activities across boroughs, being agile and responsive to development opportunities, sharing the costs and risks of development. Development corporations could foster a sense of creativity and innovation.

The net result would be quick delivery, proper infrastructure to support the development, no pressure to build on existing conurbations, competition in pricing, eroding of land banking, a joined-up economy with mixed use housing linked to leisure and local jobs. We can create places people want to live in and move to and create churn in the housing market. That will benefit everyone. In 75 year’s time, the New Towns of the Starmer era can be the beacons of economic success that Attlee’s Basildon and Bracknell are today.

Successive governments have talked about locally led development corporations and successive governments have bottled it. It’s happening again with the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. If we are to be true to Starmer’s pledge to ‘back the builder not the blockers’, let’s not just build new homes, let’s build New Towns.

Comments are closed.