Keir Starmer has started to sound very different on planning recently, making a deliberate play to make Labour the party who will get things built.

Since the Labour conference, he has declared himself a YIMBY, argued that sometimes it will be necessary to override local opposition to construction plans, stated that it is essential that we overhaul our arcane planning system, and coined the term “grey belt” to describe already developed parts of the “green belt”.

The flagship policy of this new approach is to build 1.5 million homes over a Parliament in part through a “generation of New Towns”. Whilst the headline number sounds impressive, in reality it is no more housing than the current target (300k p/a) spread across a 5 year Parliament. And, it  is likely well below the actual level of demand and probably undeliverable if you think it’s highly unlikely to turn on the taps to deliver the 300k in year one of a Labour government. However, the ambition is laudable and it would be a big step up from the approximate house building rate of approximately 200,000 new builds per year over the last decade. 

Unfortunately, while it’s clear that the country is crying out for more housing, New Towns have been tried, tried, and tried again. And evidence shows that they aren’t a particularly great idea. 

There have been 3 generations of New Towns since World War Two, with 22 total towns developed in which 2.8 million people live today.

As a rule, the list of new towns is hardly illustrious. In general, they have followed the economic fortunes of the regions they are a part of and are criticised for their less-than-beautiful urban design and their car-oriented transport networks.

The reason for this failure is clear.

New Towns are a poorly conceived idea, and don’t meet the reality of modern economies or consumer demand. 

For residents, car-focused, low density neighbourhoods cannot sustain vibrant economies or cultural sectors, and they encourage inactive lifestyles. 

Perhaps the biggest drawback though is the economic opportunity cost.

In a world of limited resources and public finances, pushing a towns-based agenda will inevitably come at the expense of our cities, most of which already lag behind London in terms of productivity. Spending on commuter roads between Skelmersdale, for example, and Liverpool would have been better spent improving rail and bus links in the city and between cities.

Towns and other types of sprawl have numerous run-on implications: they increase demand for cars; worsen commute times as people head into cities for work; and it limits the possibility of business agglomeration and innovation.

The policy also misses the difference in demand for housing today versus in the past. Demand in the UK is mostly pent up around the most productive areas, London and the South East, already the densest part of the UK. But even in the less productive regions of the UK, there has been marked increases in demand for housing in cities. Over the last 20 years, the ONS shows that more people have moved into larger conurbations compared to smaller ones, with young people at the forefront of this movement. In other words, predominantly young people, who cannot currently afford homes, want to live in city centres where there are economic opportunities and vibrant cultural and social scenes.  

In truth, we don’t need New Towns. What we need are cities that work better, are more productive and house more people. 

A proper urbanist agenda would seek to address the problems holding back our cities, and there are some obvious policy solutions that a forward-thinking new Government could pursue.

To name just a few: the planning system should give by-right planning consents to brownfield sites for dense housing, new quarters such as the one proposed in Cambridge should be built over the appalled cries of local NIMBYs, Section 106 and CIL should be scrapped in favour of a Development Levy to more effectively invest in local infrastructure, and council tax should be reformed so that some of the value uplift of development is captured by Local Authorities to encourage a virtuous cycle for Local Authority budgets.

All of these would more meaningfully contribute to a growth agenda and build a Britain fit for the future, but don’t offer the same headline-grabbing allure of New Towns and would require a party to take on the NIMBYs once and for all.

In the end, a proper urbanist agenda may prove too radical for a new Labour Government, particularly given the always tricky politics of planning. But, if Starmer wants to leave a legacy in our built environment and get the country growing again, then he should look to cities, and stay well clear of the New Towns.