The first ten sites have now been selected which are to comprise the country’s ‘healthy new towns’, with the hope they will form a creative and innovative way to deal with some of the key healthcare challenges faced in England during the 21st century. As part of the programme, it is expected that approximately 76,000 new homes will be built. But how will this work in practice? And in what way is it to link to the Government’s ongoing emphasis on providing affordable housing for all? Walker Morris’ Planning & Environment team consider the initiative.
Launched in September 2015, the Healthy New Town Programme aims to ensure strong communities and healthy places to live are created as a way to narrow the country’s current main health gaps, including existing poor prevention measures and out-dated health and social care services. Specifically, the programme has three core objectives:
- to develop new and more effective ways of shaping new towns, neighbourhoods and strong communities, so that health and wellbeing is promoted, illness prevented and people remain independent for longer;
- to show that health and care services can be provided in a radically different way to how they are currently, particularly with services integrated in new ways to give better outcomes at the same / lower costs; and
- to achieve the two objectives above in such a way that they can be replicated across local and national areas.
As part of the initial project launch, expressions of interest were invited from sites across England where development was envisaged. Diversity was encouraged amongst the schemes, with different scales, stages of development, types of development (e.g. urban extensions, regeneration projects etc.), and varying communities or contexts (e.g. rural and urban) encouraged. Over 100 expressions of interest were made by local authorities, housing associations, developers and NHS organisations – all eager to be involved.
In early March 2016, the Government announced the first ten sites selected, outlining their approximate scale and extent. The planned garden city at Ebbsfleet in Kent is to form part of this initial tranche, where it is envisaged nearly 15,000 new homes will be created. At Whitehill and Bordon, Hampshire, 3,350 new homes are to be erected on a former army barracks. In addition, a new care campus is envisaged at the site where ‘care-ready homes’ will be located in one area that can easily be adapted to the needs of people with long-term health conditions. These will be alongside a nurse-led treatment centre, pharmacy and integrated care hub. In addition, ‘healthy new towns’ are proposed at:
- Barking Riverside, London – 11,000 homes;
- Northstowe, Cambridgeshire – 10,000 homes on former military land;
- Cranbrook, Devon – 8.000 new units;
- Darlington – 2,500 residential units across three linked sites in the Eastern Growth Zone;
- Whyndyke Farm, Fylde, Lancashire – 1,400 residential units;
- Halton Lea, Runcorn – 800 residential units;
- Bicester, Oxfordshire – 393 houses, part of the 1,300 hones planned in the Elmsbrook project; and
- Barton Park, Oxford – 885 residential units.
The various sites are expected to experiment with unique and ingenious ways to encourage healthy living and an active lifestyle amongst residents and visitors alike. Elements and design features suggested as part of this include:
- fast food-free zones surrounding schools;
- ‘dementia-friendly’ streets;
- greater numbers of cycle and walking routes;
- digitally-enabled local health service provision;
- safe and appealingly-designed green spaces;
- more numerous play areas;
- adaptable homes to allow older people to continue living independently wherever possible; and
- workplaces, schools and leisure facilities designed in ways to make the most of opportunities for physical activity, healthy eating and positive mental health.
However, these design features are being incorporated into developments already proposed as part of the Government’s initiative to ensure more housing across the country, including affordable housing. As announced at the end of 2015, there is the aim for one million new homes to be built by 2020. Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, has indeed referred to the affordable homes initiative as a “golden opportunity”. He stated:“As these new neighbourhoods and towns are built, we’ll kick ourselves if in ten years time we look back having missed the opportunity to ‘design out’ the obesogenic environment and ‘design in’ health and wellbeing”.
It has long-been held that some of the most pressing challenges, such as obesity and mental health issues, can be influenced by the quality of the built and natural environment. For example, as stated by a director at Public Health England (Professor Kevin Fenton): “The considerate design of spaces and places is critical to promote good health…thinking and planning of everyday environments [can] improve health for generations to come”. The most recent announcement has been strongly welcomed by many bodies, including the Royal Town Planning Institute. Correspondingly, a report recently published by the Building Research Establishment estimated that there are 3.5 million homes in England with serious hazards such as damp and pests. The resulting health problems are thought to cost the NHS at least £1.4 billion annually.
When it is estimated that a quarter of British adults walk for less than nine minutes everyday and only 21% of children play outdoors (compared to 71% in their parents’ generation), it seems the ‘healthy new towns’ can bring nothing but an improvement. Yet many areas already promote health and wellbeing through ‘place-shaping’ and ‘place-making’. Better housing and urban design, good access to well-designed public spaces and local facilities, and improved cycle / pedestrian links are a key part of most local authorities’ core strategies and area development plans. In addition, developers, landowners and builders applying for planning permission are very much expected to demonstrate – as part of the application process – that their proposals encourage health and wellbeing.
Alongside the delivery of the 885 new homes on the ‘healthy town’ site at Barton Park, it is expected that there will be a landscape setting focusing on providing walking and cycling routes, a park with lakes and natural play spaces, two new civic squares, sports pitches and a pavilion for community use, and a two-form entry primary school that is to be used as a“community hub for residents both in the estate and in the local neighbourhoods”. Of the housing on site, 40% is to be affordable – thus linking with the Government’s requirement for a greater volume of affordable properties. It is envisaged that the NHS will bring together its clinicians with designers and technology experts on the Barton Park plans, as with the other nine demonstrator sites. This level of clinical / health involvement is certainly a new feature, but only time will tell how active the NHS role will be. Will it be any different from the existing role of local health authorities as statutory consultees? Similarly, will the ‘healthy’ features proposed on the respective sites differ in reality from what would usually be provided in any normal development situation?
It may be the case that the programme will bring new life to efforts to integrate resources; ensure collaborative working between public, private and voluntary organisations; and encourage provision for improved wellbeing. However, a further concern is whether the appropriate structures and governance (be it financial or legal) are in place for the necessary new partnerships, enterprises and projects to work together effectively. A challenge is also likely to be faced for developers in trying to ensure that there are sufficient residential units provided on sites (both affordable and otherwise), but space for all the ‘healthy’ elements to be incorporated, while ensuring the development overall remains viable. Divergent priorities are likely to ‘pull’ in different directions.
In addition, encouraging purchase of the properties may be difficult in some instances. Labelling a property as ‘healthy’ does not necessarily ensure sales. For example, Ebbsfleet is just not currently seen as desirable and housing uptake is poor – despite larger flats being on the market for as little as £150,000. Problems with too many empty and poorly-maintained existing properties will continue. Entirely new development schemes are not necessarily the best or only solution.
It will remain to be seen whether the ‘healthy new towns’ operate successfully in practice and have the desired effect, or indeed whether they diverge at all from existing new development proposals.