Two decades after Bradley Stoke's conception as a small, self-sufficient new town outside Bristol, its town centre site is still covered in weeds and bracken.  As plans for similar settlements forge ahead across the UK, Steve Melia presents a case study of how not to do it.

The small new town is back in fashion.  Plans are now well advanced for sites in Devon, Kent, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire.  Five years ago, Government guidance PPG3 put urban redevelopment and urban extensions ahead of new settlements.  But this has not discouraged developers promoting similar schemes around Oxford, Harlow and Litchfield since then.  These have generated much local controversy but surprisingly little analysis or debate at national level.

The small new town typically has 2,000 to 10,000 dwellings, built near to but separate from a larger conurbation, and led by private developers.  A consortium of housebuilders began promoting the concept in the 1980s after governments abandoned the postwar New Towns programme.  Several speculative applications were rejected at public inquiry; a stand-alone new town of this size and type has yet to be built in this country. 

Bradley Stoke began construction in 1987 and is now nearly complete.  You may have passed its most prominent landmark: the RAC control tower where the M4 meets the M5.  Built on the edge of the Bristol conurbation, it could be considered an urban extension.  But enclosed in a triangle of railway, motorway and dual carriageway, it was conceived as a town rather than a suburb.  It is the closest comparator we have to learn lessons on the problems and opportunities of the small new town.

The 1946 New Towns Act created corporations empowered to compulsorily purchase land at a price reflecting its existing use – usually agricultural.  The state paid for the infrastructure and recouped its investment over time as land values increased.  Whatever the faults of the original new towns, this was an important advantage.

By 1967 a second phase of New Towns was under construction across most of the country, except the southwest.  With statisticians forecasting 11 million more people by the end of the century, a Government-appointed team of planners recommended an expansion of the Bristol conurbation into Gloucestershire, nearly doubling its population to 800,000.  As local villagers formed protest groups, the birth rate began to fall: the actual increase in population was ultimately less than half the Government’s prediction.  The plans were quietly shelved. Then in the 1980s a smaller area was designated for the 8,500 home new settlement of Bradley Stoke.

The plans caused some friction between Conservative Northavon, the planning authority, and Bristol’s ruling Labour group.  As one councillor put it: “the development could be a disaster for the rest of Bristol”.

A development brief was drawn up without any significant community involvement and presented to a public meeting in 1984.  Reaction was sceptical, rather than hostile to the principle.  A neighbouring councillor called it: “a wait and see development.  You build the houses then wait and see if the facilities are provided.”

In fact, Avon County Council, responsible for education and highways, did push for greater contributions from the developers, but they were hampered by the fragmented pattern of land ownerships.  Agents for some of the landowners used informal contacts with councillors to press the County to reduce its demands.  The final agreement required the developers to pay for roads and drainage, to provide land for open spaces and schools, but little else.

An outline planning application covering the whole town was approved in 1986, giving the applicants, unusually, 20 years to agree reserved matters.  Ten acres were zoned for a town centre, but the timing of its development was left to the owners of the site. 

With each parcel of land in separate ownership, housebuilding began on several parts of the site, rapidly outstripping available facilities.  When a new residents’ association began campaigning for basic services such as postboxes, shops and a doctor’s surgery, Northavon’s ruling Conservatives came to regard it as a political opponent.  Few of its leaders were politicised at first, but in 1992 most of them joined the Liberal Democrats, winning control of the first town council, and straining relations with the District.

The 20-year planning permissions coupled with a development brief zoning every piece of land left the Town Council frustrated at its inability to make changes.  A survey of the surrounding villages before building began led Northavon to provide a bowling green as the first community facility, when most of the new population was under 40.  Bradley Stoke, typically for a new development, had more children and a higher birth rate than the ‘average’ population used to calculate the schools programme.  Demand exceeded available places in 1993, when parents demonstrated on a site allocated for a primary school.

A year after Bradley Stoke began, the housing market turned from boom to slump.  Interestingly, completions continued to rise during 1989 and stayed relatively high, helped by incentives to buyers including free holidays.  As late as 1990, housebuilders were still offering shared equity mortgages, which depended on rising prices, and exacerbated the growing problem of negative equity.

In 1995, a BBC Panorama programme gave the town the epithet it has tried ever since to dispel: ‘Sadly Broke, negative equity capital of the U.K.’.  A survey showed 29% of households affected, but the fall in secondhand prices was no worse than many other places, and sales remained relatively buoyant.  As one estate agent explained: “it always was a myth that Bradley Stoke was sadly broke”.

The recession brought other consequences.  The builders of a new leisure centre went bankrupt and the town centre site changed hands several times, with no sign of development.

Today, 18 years of weeds still grow over the site, now owned by Tesco.  Progress has been made on other community facilities, mostly financed by the taxpayer and the Sports Lottery, which rescued the leisure centre at a further cost of £2m.

Northavon’s planners hoped many builders would produce greater diversity, but the older parts of the town are typical of mass housing estates anywhere.  Some of the more recent developments, under pressure to achieve higher densities, do show signs of architectural imagination, and despite frustration over the town centre, 77% of residents say Bradley Stoke is a good place to live.

Although national policy has moved on, much of Bradley Stoke’s experience remains relevant.  An early marketing leaflet described it as “a flagship for new developments throughout Europe”.  Similar language is still used by developers, and even some local authorities promoting new towns today.  Enthusiasm for the challenge may obscure some fundamental disadvantages.

Individual circumstances will obviously vary – the availability and location of brownfield sites for example – but some broad comparisons can be made.  New towns tend to need more new infrastructure than other forms of development; but unless authorities use powers like the New Towns Act, the cost of the land will reduce the available funds.  And in one respect the challenge is tougher today: Bradley Stoke was built almost entirely for private sale: nowadays, affordable housing would make further demands on the budget.

It is generally easier to delay more integrated urban extensions when the housing market slows down.  A new town, with less access to existing infrastructure, once started, must continue.  This may undermine urban regeneration: annual housing completions in Bristol fell to 406 during the 1990s recession, compared to 1187 for South Gloucestershire (successor to Northavon).

Although it will not solve the financial problem, negotiations and enforcement, are easier when a single developer controls all or most of the land, as they do in some of the current schemes.

The development brief for Bradley Stoke sought to encourage public transport, but the bus service today relies on council subsidy.  70% of the town’s working population drive an average of 8 miles to work (England average 55%) whilst the motorway allows the town’s business park to draw its staff from a wide area.  This pattern is typical of small settlements near larger conurbations.  Ivybridge, a new town built around an existing village near Plymouth, has the highest rate of outward commuting in Devon, even though it has more jobs than working residents.  Like Bradley Stoke, 68% drive to work, but they travel further: an average of 12 miles, because open countryside separates Ivybridge from Plymouth. 

The lesson is not an easy one: planning for transport and employment needs to reflect the choices made by employees and employers across conurbations and sub-regions.  Simply siting new housing near to new employment may not achieve the desired result.

Finally, there are some particular implications for local government.  When conurbations cross council areas, inter-authority planning and cooperation are vital.  In planning a new settlement, a balance needs to be struck between agreements binding developers, and the flexibility for a new community to shape its own destiny.

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