A new twist on an old idea
John Ruddy says in the face of our housing crisis we should reconsider the idea of new towns and, following examples elsewhere, develop schemes that meet our 21st century needs.
Scotland, like the rest of the UK, has a housing crisis. Not enough houses are being built, especially ones for affordable rent. We need radical ideas which can boost house building, while making the homes cheap enough to run, as well as buy or rent. New towns have had a bad reputation, with places such as Glenrothes and Cumbernauld becoming by-words for poor planning. But a new development in the south west of England shows that a new twist on the idea can provide a self-sufficient, low carbon community in close proximity to skilled employment opportunities, encouraging people to use sustainable modes of transport.
Back in 2005, East Devon District Council identified a need for additional housing in their area, above and beyond that which could be accommodated by their previous planning strategy of allocating development land adjacent to existing settlements. Driven by the expected economic growth of Exeter, they planned a new community on a greenfield site 5 miles to the east. Located adjacent to both the A30 trunk road and the main line to London Waterloo, there were good transport links. It was the first new settlement to be planned and built in Devon since the Middle Ages.
The result, now the first phase of 2,900 homes is complete, is a development of a truly new community, complete with new primary schools, shops and parkland, all designed to reduce dependence on the car for work or shopping. Also a first is a district heating energy centre, which provides affordable heating to the residents as well as to the nearby Business Park. Already the carbon footprint of Cranbrook has been massively reduced compared to conventional developments. The next phase will take it to nearly 7,000 homes, and it will become one of the largest towns in East Devon. Affordable housing has ensured a mix of occupiers within the town.
This is a model we need to copy here in Scotland. But we should go further. We also need to reduce the cost and time for construction. Use of prefabricated sections would reduce costs and speed up construction. Use of greenfield sites adjacent to existing transport links will also reduce costs, as land values rocket in anticipation of planning.
These would not, of course, be the sort of prefabricated housing that was built after the war. Modern prefabrication techniques can produce homes to a high environmental standard, with an excellent quality of finish. Often used by people who are undertaking a self-build project, with mass production the costs of manufacture can be reduced further, and time for erection – and hence costs – can also be cut.
But the planning system across Scotland is bogged down with regional development plans which provide for minimal levels of additional housing. With house building having been at historic low levels for several years now, we need to increase construction to make up for lost time. The Scottish Government needs to step into the planning process to create the extra space needed for the additional housing we so desperately need.
In East Devon, mixing affordable housing with market price sales has achieved a real sense of community, rather than creating sink estates. This type of “new town” has genuinely lived up to Nye Bevan’s vision of a community where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street. It’s the sort of radical thinking for our housing policy we must pursue now, when over 150,000 households in Scotland are on council housing waiting lists.