Labour urged to focus on Midlands in plan for new towns

<span>Angela Rayner said a Labour government would ask an independent taskforce to choose the right sites for ‘a new generation of new towns’.</span><span>Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA</span>
Angela Rayner said a Labour government would ask an independent taskforce to choose the right sites for ‘a new generation of new towns’.Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Labour’s plan for new towns looks likely to focus on the Midlands as much as England’s overcrowded south-east, with planners already considering areas near Nottingham, Stafford and Northampton, the Guardian understands.

Close to the M1 and M6 motorways, some of the locations have the advantage of being in areas of Labour local political control, giving Keir Starmer’s government a better chance of delivering on its promise to have the first homes built by the end of a first Labour term.

One planner involved in early thinking said other potential sites included either side of the Thames estuary, where a new road bridge from Essex to Kent could open in 2031 if approved. On the Essex bank, Labour recently took control of Thurrock council. There have long been plans to build more on the Kent side, where a doubling of the size of Ebbsfleet is also understood to be a possibility.

Labour has yet to consider specific sites and its deputy leader, Angela Rayner, told a property conference in Leeds on Tuesday that a Labour government would ask an independent taskforce to choose the right sites for “a new generation of new towns”.

Another location mooted by planners engaged in the issue is in south Hampshire. Labour will face a choice over how far to press ahead with a 150,000-home extension to Cambridge, which has been championed by Michael Gove, the secretary of state of levelling up, housing and communities, but opposed by local leaders.

The latest new towns initiative comes after years in which England has built too few houses to meet demand. But it is likely to set a Labour government on course for vociferous opposition. Attempts by David Cameron’s government to build a new generation of “garden cities” fizzled out, while Gordon Brown’s eco-towns vision fell foul of local protests.

She said they would be “inspired by garden suburbs like Hale in Manchester, Roundhay in Leeds and the 120-year-old garden city project of Ebenezer Howard, which delivered the Letchworth and Welwyn model communities in Hertfordshire.”

Rayner pledged that a list of projects would be announced within the first year of a Starmer-led government. The examples of Hale and Roundhay suggest some will be extensions to existing major settlements, while the garden city model would suggest some will be standalone towns.

Rayner said a new towns code would require at least 40% of homes to be affordable; buildings should have “character”, designed with reference to local history and in tree-lined streets; there would be guaranteed public transport, doctors’ surgeries and schools, and access to nature and play areas.

The shadow of the last Labour government’s attempt to build the first genuine generation of new towns since the 1970s hangs over the latest initiative. Residents in one of the few projects to be delivered as part of the eco-towns scheme, the 10,000-home Northstowe in Cambridgeshire, have recently complained about the lack of community facilities, shops or health centres and said it has “no heart”.

One former Downing Street housing adviser said Labour should focus on extending existing towns and cities rather than building new towns like Milton Keynes.

“We have a lot of towns and cities that are too small and what we need is urban extensions,” said Toby Lloyd, a housing adviser to Theresa May. “When they talk about new towns, it doesn’t necessarily mean whole standalone settlements in the middle of nowhere.”

Planning experts have previously identified Oxford, Norwich, Reading and Stratford-upon-Avon as possible locations for extensions, along with Taunton, Exeter, Harrogate, Preston, Carlisle and Guildford. Extending towns has the benefit of proximity to existing rail infrastructure, but land assembly can be more complicated.

A source familiar with sites with potential for new towns said there could be new settlements between Derby and Nottingham, between Bedford and Northampton and between Stafford and Stoke.

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Starmer has previously said he is willing to build on “grey belt”, which Labour defined as poor-quality greenbelt such as disused car parks, petrol stations or industrial sites. Last week polling showed 67% of people support using such land, while only 31% would prioritise housing at the expense of building on the green belt.

The Town and Country Planning Association urged Labour to adopt “a strategic and transparent approach to identifying locations” as part of efforts to build public trust after previous ambitious plans for new towns became politically impossible to deliver.

Katy Lock, the association’s director of communities, said: “Learning from the past requires any future government new towns programme to be ambitious about innovative design standards such as net zero housing; have a strategic and transparent approach to identifying locations; be committed to building public trust in the consent process; and above all ensure residents have a powerful voice in the long-term stewardship of their community.”