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With Election Confirmed For 4 July, Here Is Labour’s New Town Policy Explained

Angela Rayner, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, put more flesh on the bones of the party’s “new towns” housing policy in a speech at the UK's Real Estate Investment and Infrastructure Forum in Leeds on Tuesday.

That was a day before Prime Minister Rishi Sunak confirmed that a UK general election will be held on 4 July. And with housing set to be a major election battleground, here’s what you need to know about a key policy of the party that bookmakers have as strong favourites to win power at the upcoming vote. 

Labour's Angela Rayner

What are new towns?

As well as trying to increase the rate of housing delivery by promoting the construction of more individual projects, Labour also wants to boost numbers by putting systems and structures in place that would allow several huge schemes featuring tens of thousands of homes to be built around the country, adding big chunks of new homes in a single swoop. In other words, new towns. 

Is this a new idea?

No. In her speech, Rayner pointed to similar programs from the past, noting the policy was “inspired by garden suburbs like Hale in Manchester, Roundhay in Leeds and the Garden City project.” Milton Keynes, 50 miles north-west of London and commenced in the 1960s, is the most famous and successful example. The city has a population of 264,000, more than the initial target of 250,000.

Recent Conservative and Labour governments have also tried something similar. 

How will the new towns work?

If Labour wins the election, Rayner said an independent task force will select the sites where new towns will be built within a year. Local authorities will then work in partnership with the private sector to deliver large amounts of new homes on these sites. 

Rayner set out a New Towns Code in the speech, consisting of six elements:

  • More social and affordable homes — with a gold standard aim of 40%.
  • Buildings with character, in tree-lined streets that fit in with nearby areas.
  • Design that pays attention to local history and identity.
  • Planning fit for the future, with good links to town and city centres.
  • Guaranteed public transport and public services, from doctors’ surgeries to schools.
  • Access to nature, parks and places for children to play. 

The policy will likely go hand in hand with another plank of Labour’s housing strategy: the redesignation of some green belt land around London as grey belt land where development will be permitted. 

Where are the sites likely to be?

The selection of sites will be an interesting process. The south-east needs new homes because it the most economically successful part of the country and is where people want to live. But while Labour is likely to get rid of the idea of “levelling up” the country, its historic support base is in the Midlands and north, and these areas need new infrastructure, too. 

There is also the question of whether new towns should be extensions of existing conurbations or entirely new settlements. New towns in the past have been a mixture of both. 

The Guardian reported in March that Nottingham, Stafford and Northampton in the Midlands, the Thames estuary area of Essex and Kent, and sites in Cambridgeshire and Hampshire were being considered. It is likely new towns will be in areas where Labour is in charge of the local authority, because that will mean greater buy-in from local leaders. 

Is it likely to work? 

This is where things get tricky. Rayner and Labour have not been explicit about whether local authorities in areas where sites are selected will have additional powers to push schemes through. And attempts by David Cameron’s Conservative government and Gordon Brown’s last Labour government to enact similar policies fizzled out in the face of local opposition to big new schemes. NIMBYism is a factor with new towns, just like any project.

That is why Rayner in the New Town Code paid particular attention to two areas of complaint around new towns: services like schools and medical facilities as well as aesthetics and open spaces. 

“The reason many local communities resist new homes is often because the housing is of the wrong type, in the wrong place,” Rayner said in her speech. “It doesn’t come with the schools, GP surgeries and green spaces that make communities, not just streets. Or the affordable and social housing local people need.”