Are New Settlements the Answer to the Housing Crisis?
With the Government seeking to ‘Level up’, ‘Build Back Better’ and ‘Solve the Housing Crisis’, it will be aiming to do so in a manner that appeases its existing, and potential, voters.
In recent years, the most effective manner in which to boost the supply of housing has been urban extensions. These provide a large quantum of housing adjacent to an existing sustainable hub where people could choose to meet their daily needs by walking and cycling. Whilst this will, rightly, remain an important form of delivering sustainable development, there is a less politically contentious alternative – new settlements.
The ‘New Settlement’ concept is not a ‘new’ thing. The statutory Ebenezer Howard Garden Villages university module is recent testament of this, but humans have been constructing new settlements since the dawn of time. The current Government’s appreciation of this as a valuable tool in which to boost the supply of housing was emphasised by the republication of the National Planning Policy Framework in 2019, with paragraph 72 (now paragraph 73 in the 2021 NPPF revision) stating the following:
“The supply of large numbers of new homes can often be best achieved through planning for larger scale development, such as new settlements...”
Indeed, new settlements provide a critical mass of development that, if planned comprehensively, can contribute significantly towards the Government’s objective of achieving net zero carbon, with opportunities to deliver a wide-range of measures including the following:
- substantial amounts of green infrastructure that will increase carbon capture and storage;
- a variety of renewable energy generation technologies - including solar and heat pumps - on a significant scale;
- innovative construction measures to prevent heat loss and overheating, and opportunities to provide viable district heating networks;
- use of low carbon construction measures, and recycled and or sustainable construction materials
- locating all dwellings within walking distance of a range of services, facilities, employment opportunities and frequent public transport connections, to really push a modal shift;
- large-scale on-site community food production to reduce food miles.
New settlements also provide the opportunity to deliver on other key agendas such as Health & Wellbeing and Community Ownership.
Of course, the other key political benefit is that new settlements do not generally adjoin existing populations, and are likely to generate less local opposition than urban extensions.
Such developments are reliant on identifying sites that are sufficiently large to deliver the necessary levels of development, which are within locations that are sufficiently unconstrained by environmental designations, adjacent to existing or proposed sustainable transport infrastructure, located strategically to attract employment and, ideally, within a single landownership.
Attracting employment is a particular challenge, but an important one to overcome if a new settlement is to work as opposed to simply being a satellite town to a larger centre. Public sector funding could assist new settlements in this respect through the creation of enterprise zones and providing financial incentives.
As an alternative, new settlements provide the opportunity for employment to be ‘re-thought’ through the provision of ‘work at home hubs’, which would provide a sociable working environment in a central location that could be used by residents. These ‘hubs’ would likely be reliant on community funding (unless provided by the developer), although until the demand is established it cannot be confidently concluded that such an approach would be successful.
Notwithstanding the above, the biggest challenge of all is infrastructure delivery.
Without the early delivery of social infrastructure it will not be possible to encourage social interaction between the people who live there, and this will hinder the fostering of a community. Again, Government funding, potentially in the form of a Social Infrastructure Fund, would give new settlements the best opportunity to become thriving places that are attractive to prospective homebuyers.
Of course, transport infrastructure is also essential. New settlements provide a blank canvas for blue-sky thinking, and constitute a testing ground for innovative solutions, particularly in terms of transportation. Why not create car-free communities, with an out-of-town car park (served with electric charging facilities) and a highly integrated autonomous bus network? This would create a highly attractive living environment that would likely encourage walking and cycling like nowhere else in the UK.
Whilst it is positive that Local Planning Authorities are increasingly exploring opportunities for new settlements, significant thought is required to ensure that these places work effectively. Further, if the Government sees new settlements as the solution to the housing crisis and many of its other agendas (notably achieving net zero carbon), which they certainly could be, it must be open to providing up-front financial support to help achieve this.
So whether in the North or the South East, new settlements provide an exciting opportunity to help meet the UKs needs in a highly sustainable manner, and are likely to be a politically palatable solution. However, they are not without their challenges and would rely on Government support to given them the best prospects of success.
Authored by Hywel James, Associate