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Dr David Mountain: Development Corporations and the need for proactive planning

The RTPI’s Research Manager, Dr David Mountain, reflects on recently commissioned research by Public First, The Planning Premium: The Value of Well-made Places, which investigates the case for investment in planning at all levels.

Development Corporations are back on the political agenda. A tried-and-tested means of proactive planning, Development Corporations are time-bound, geographically-specific executive agencies, established when the state wants to firmly incentivise and guide the location of development activity. Development Corporations come in various shapes and sizes: New Town, Urban, Mayoral, Locally-Led – these are all types of executive body resulting from various different adaptations of the original 1946 New Towns Act. They have planning powers, Compulsory Purchase powers, and tend to be arms-length in their relations with the Local Authorities in their area. Something of a last-resort, their establishment has often been Whitehall-led, and in effect a form of national land-use strategy.

Development Corporations have been subject to both notoriety and celebration. In my PhD research prior to joining the RTPI, I looked at some of the similarities in ambition and purpose between the last (and arguably most successful) New Town, Milton Keynes, and the first (and most controversial) Urban Development Corporation, in the London Docklands. Despite these cases being very different on the surface, there was in fact a great deal of continuity experienced by practitioners between the two.

Development Corporations employ lots of planners, and represent what ambitious planning can achieve when planning services are given a single-minded brief and powerful remit. The RTPI’s recently-commissioned “Planning Premium” analyses records from under-studied Development Corporations established in the 2000s under New Labour. It investigates the case in economic terms for investment in planning at all levels. It arrives at two findings:

  1. Strong, coherent planning results in higher-quality places which are more desirable, particularly over time as communities develop;
  2. Development Corporations can achieve volumes of housebuilding which far exceed the scale of development which would occur otherwise.

The ramifications of the second finding are clear and important: proactive planning (including by Development Corporations) unlocks volumes of development when needed, volumes which wouldn’t be possible normally.

The first finding suggests that the planning and development system today is focussed on building and selling units, rather than planting the seeds and moulding the conditions for successful, desirable communities. Strong, vision-led, proactive planning has the potential to deliver quality places which are demonstrably more successful, in economic terms, than would be the case when delivered in an ad-hoc or piecemeal way. Developers don’t get the price right for the long-term value of desirable communities. An emboldened, long-termist planning system would have the potential to develop and share recipes for successful community creation, and to initiate virtuous circles of innovation and investment.

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