In 2010, the coalition Government cancelled the Labour Government’s top-down eco-towns programme, as part of our commitment to localism and to supporting locally led development.
Despite a pledge of 10 new towns by Labour Ministers, the eco-towns programme built nothing but resentment. The initiative was a total shambles, with developers abandoning the process, application for judicial review, the timetable being extended over and over, and local opposition growing to the then Government’s unsustainable and environmentally damaging proposals. The last Administration’s own assessments admitted that only three of its original proposals were viable without public subsidy. Merely one of the eco-town proposals were considered environmentally-friendly based on their assessments.
As the programme became ever more bizarre—from the then Health Secretary wanting to turn them into “fit towns”, to proposals for compulsory fortnightly bin collections or bin taxes in the new developments. No gimmick was left unturned.
Labour’s eco-towns were to be imposed from above, with the locations determined by a national planning statement issued by Whitehall. This planning statement is still technically in force (DCLG, “Planning Policy Statement: eco-towns: A supplement to Planning Policy Statement 1”, July 2009).
The coalition Government have undertaken a comprehensive programme to streamline and remove unnecessary Whitehall planning guidance to help streamline the planning system and make it more accessible to local firms and local residents.
The publication of the national planning policy framework in 2012 cut over 1,300 pages of policy guidance down to less than 50 pages. We have revoked Labour’s volumes of regional strategies which added complexity and confusion to the planning system, and which suppressed local decision making. The new planning practice guidance website, currently in draft, is replacing 8,000 pages of impenetrable guidance documents with one simple, concise and accessible online resource.
In the context of the cancellation of the programme and the consolidation of planning policy and guidance, we are therefore proposing to cancel the 2009 eco-towns planning policy statement and will undertake a strategic environmental assessment to comply with the EU law on this issue.
We are minded to save, for now, the policies for north-west Bicester until Cherwell district council has an up-to-date local plan in place. This is because, since May 2010, the council has made good progress with its plans for large-scale, locally supported development. This local work shows that a top-down process is not needed.
As the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), who is responsible for housing outlined in his recent answer—17 January 2014, Official Report, column 694W—we are opposed to top-down Whitehall planning and do not support the central imposition of new towns, however they are branded.
It is the coalition Government’s policy to support communities with their ambitions to deliver large scale local development. So far, our local infrastructure fund has unlocked locally led large housing schemes capable of delivering over 69,000 new homes, and we are working to finalise investment deals for a further 10 stalled schemes capable of delivering up to 35,000 more homes—over 100,000 in total. A prospectus on bids for that fund was published in February 2013. The autumn statement committed a further £1 billion of funding to unlock locally led housing schemes capable of delivering up to a further 250,000 new homes. A further prospectus inviting bids to this fund will be issued this spring.
In short, this is a further step in removing Whitehall red tape, abolishing top-down planning, and working with local communities to build locally supported homes and safeguard our local environment and countryside.