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Lessons from 10 years of building a new community

It’s 10 years since work started in earnest on Devon’s first new town since the Middle Ages. Cranbrook was originally planned to be home to around 7,000 people – think Okehampton or Seaton – but now is likely to expand to a population of nearer 20,000 – more like the size of Tiverton.

That will firmly put it in the Devon population Top 10 – in a list which includes Plymouth, Exeter and Torquay.

The anniversary has been seen by East Devon District Council officers as an appropriate time to look back on what has been achieved and what lessons can be learnt.

Although first floated a number of years earlier, a new town for East Devon wasn’t formally on the cards until it was included in the 1995-2011 East Devon Local Plan, which was eventually adopted in 2006 – after attracting 15,000 representations. Officers note that the proposals were “hugely controversial.”

For us at KOR, the officers’ anniversary report is an interesting read for two reasons. Firstly, Cranbrook is just around the corner from our Devon offices, and more importantly, we’re working with a number of clients proposing new settlements of their own in other parts of the country.

Our clients are long-standing landowners who want to retain control of the delivery of the new communities they are Masterplanning with their own teams.

Cranbrook, conversely, is masterplanned by the Local Planning Authority, and delivered by a consortium of two national house-builders and a land promoter. The advantage of this approach, officers say, is “that the cost of delivering ‘common’ infrastructure (such as the main spine road, schools and the country park) is internalised and shared within a single commercial structure.”

A key section of the anniversary report is called Learning Points, and these are well worth reading. I’ve selected some of the more pertinent:

  • Clarity of vision – Cranbrook will take somewhere in the region of 40 years from initial planning to final construction to complete. Having a clear vison is critical in terms of setting this journey and determining what kind of place will develop and form.
  • Sustained financial support – there are specific financial barriers associated with strategic scale developments, notably high upfront infrastructure costs, that need to be carefully managed… the last major funding support was secured in 2014 and when enquiries were made in relation to the town centre and the wider expansion of the town, given the ongoing viability challenges, it was clear that there was no support available.
  • Beyond planning – bringing forward and delivering a new town is a long-term corporate endeavour… All parties need to be prepared to work together to provide the services that are needed to support residents from the outset.
  • Understand the delivery model – the delivery model has a fundamental bearing on how a place develops. For Cranbrook there is a commercially driven delivery model dominated by house builders rather than town builders. Each party will act in its commercial self-interest in the first instance. This isn’t to level a criticism, just to acknowledge the reality. The delivery model affects every aspect of the place – from how the masterplan is set through to the stewardship of assets and how services are paid for.
  • Control of land is key – at the time of writing, in Cranbrook there is no undeveloped publicly controlled land. This limits flexibility and the ability to change and adapt plans over time.
  • Infrastructure-led approach – the forward funding and early delivery of infrastructure can act as a catalyst to place making and to fomenting a sense of community.
  • Importance of the master developer role – the easiest way to think of this role is that it is akin to the role that the Duchy of Cornwall play at Poundbury. As well as being the main landowner, the Duchy also sets the masterplan and selects the developers. Furthermore, residents are bound by a set of 17 extra rules covering everything from the changing of the colour that a building is painted to the storing of caravans that must first have the permission of His Royal Highness. In this way the Duchy is able to exert a level of control that cannot be achieved through the planning system in isolation.
  • Mixed and balanced communities are hard to achieve – without a number of house builders targeting different audiences, you won’t deliver a truly varied housing mix. This has been the case at Cranbrook, where we have had developers all aiming at broadly the same target audience. This means that we are missing single young professionals, the elderly and higher status properties.

Work started in 2011, a full eight years after the first outline planning application was submitted. The report notes that negotiating the Section 106 agreement on developer obligations, financial contributions and infrastructure delivery took four years..

Much has been achieved and delivered at Cranbrook, not least hundreds of affordable homes, two new schools, a popular country park, a railway station and a new town council. Such was the success of the build rate that East Devon was placed in the top five nationally for the biggest improvement in housing affordability ratios in 2015/16.

That, to me, clearly supports the view that the more homes available, the more affordable homes are.

On the downside, the report notes:

A key issue over the last few years has been the delivery of the town centre. This is core to how the town will function going forward. There is a clear expectation amongst residents that a fully functioning town centre will be delivered in step in with new homes. This is not least because a large hoarding was erected in 2012 at the end of the existing spine road stating ‘Coming soon – your new town centre’.

Nine years later, and still no town centre to serve the 5,500 population currently living at Cranbrook, it would seem to be an unfortunate case of overpromising and underdelivering.

The report concludes:

There has been considerable learning along the way and it will be important to ensure that this is borne in mind through the Local Plan review process. A particular aspect of this relates to the need to actively ensure that assets and services are delivered in step with the growing population and that they are fit for purpose in a contemporaneous sense, not least in terms of how they are funded.

One way to overcome many of the issues raised here would be to work with a single landowner willing and able to masterplan a new community and retain control of delivery as a master developer, one with a clear vision and the ability to explain it.

To download the Cranbrook report in full, please visit the East Devon District Council website.

If you’re bringing forward land for development, get in touch to discuss how we can support you.