As the current national debate continues on the best way to deliver more high quality, well designed and appropriately located new housing, the question of whether we should be promoting some new New Towns is often raised.

The Labour party has commissioned the Lyons Housing Review which has called for evidence of the contribution which a new generation of new towns (and also garden cities) can make to a step-change in housing building.  Recently, Nick Clegg for the Lib Dems has also been clear in his support for new towns to promote sustainable development and to put an end to the numerous “small incursions” on green spaces.  The Conservatives, as one would expect, are less forthcoming. 

So, is there a need for a new New Towns Act to facilitate delivery of a new housing strategy post-2015, if the electorate returns a Government with a political will to deliver a 21st new towns programme?

The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) suggest the answer is “yes” and have recently published a suitably provocatively titled document “New Towns Act 2015?”.

This identifies the major issues which a future Government would need to address to make the existing legislation (the 1946 Act remains on the statutory book, heavily amended by subsequent legislation) fit for purpose – on the premise that it is in need of modernisation to ensure it will be capable of delivering the type of large-scale settlements which are envisaged.

From a planning law perspective, the document highlights the interlocking nature of the planning powers of new town development corporations which made them very effective instruments of delivery.  The framework tied together the master planning of a comprehensive scheme, design, ownership, consent and a highly effective means of delivery.  Whilst essentially complex, there was the simplicity of a single public body responsible for this and accountable to a Minister of State.

Yet development corporations are not defined in law as local planning authorities.  The document suggest that, like the Homes and Communities Agency, new town development corporations could be given that status, by way of designation orders for particular sites following proposals for a new town approved by the Secretary of State, under present legislation (Section 59 Town and Country Planning Act 1990).  As such, development corporations could be empowered to facilitate neighbourhood planning and would be subject to the “duty to co-operate” so recognising two important current planning policies.  The TCPA acknowledge that this route would require much more detailed investigation.

Borrowing from the TCPA, let me conclude by quoting Lewis Silkin, the post-war Minister who introduced the new towns legislation in 1946 invoking Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (published 1516).  “My researches on new towns go back to the time of Sir Thomas More … in his “Utopia” there are 54 new towns, each 23 miles apart.  Each town is divided into four neighbourhoods, each neighbourhood being laid out with its local centre and community feed centre.  Incidentally Sir Thomas More was beheaded, but this must be regarded as precedent for the treatment of town planners”.

Only time will tell whether the newly elected Government in 2015 will be minded to work through the ideas presented by the TCPA in its publication.