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Urban development corporations: Gameplan for growth
Axis – 31 March 2004

West Northamptonshire Urban Development Corporation is the first of its kind to bring some sort of pecking order to growth. But how much of an example will it be to other areas? asks Mark Smulian

The West Northamptonshire Urban Development Corporation (UDC) will be divided into three parts. Unlike most UDCs, it does not cover areas that would normally be regarded as either inner cities or scenes of industrial dereliction. This body will be the first of its kind set up to bring order to growth that would probably happen anyway, rather then to regenerate wasteland. As such, it could provide a model for other areas dealing with the problems of success.

West Northamptonshire UDC will cover tight boundaries around the urban areas of Northampton, Daventry and Towcester, but not the rural areas in between. Daventry, Northampton and South Northamptonshire Councils will maintain development control on most applications, while the corporation will handle major sites designated for growth. Strategic planning powers will remain with Northamptonshire County Council.

Regeneration minister Lord Rooker says: 'The issue for West Northamptonshire is not whether to grow - that is happening already - but how we can best channel that growth to ensure that we create more sustainable communities.

That means ensuring that new development is structured to strengthen our communities.'

To illustrate the scale of the growth, housing in Northampton is set to increase by 20 per cent over the next 30 years to accommodate a population increase of 47,000. The surrounding area may well be hunting, shooting and fishing territory, but the growth of the South East fast encroaches.

Its councils hope the UDC will provide a mechanism to ensure that it encroaches in the right paces.

The three towns sit on the edge of the South East and adjoin Milton Keynes, with which they form one of the growth areas designated in the communities plan. Milton Keynes recently had a different development mechanism set up - a partnership committee led by English Partnerships but with strong local authority influence. To the north, Corby has an established urban regeneration company leading its development.

So why did the Northamptonshire councils agree to a UDC, given that Rooker has said that, unlike in the 1980s, these corporations will not be imposed where they are not wanted? The answer lies in past experience of growth, says county council leader Mick Young: 'We have had growth in Northampton before and it was badly controlled,' he says. 'The UDC gives the opportunity to confine the growth in towns and get the right balance of housing, economic development and infrastructure.'

The area is booming anyway, but Young fears that without the single focus of the UDC the local authorities, however good their intentions, will struggle to channel the growth appropriately. 'It would have started happening around us,' he says.

It is essential to the councils' plans that the brownfield sites available - mainly former factories - are used as far as possible to minimise the loss of greenfield sites in the surrounding area.

Daventry District Council leader Chris Millar also supports the UDC, because he has found that while his authority has no problem whatever in attracting house builders to its area, it cannot necessarily attract the jobs to go with the new homes.

To avoid the area becoming a commuter zone for Milton Keynes, or even London, which would conflict with sustainability policies, Daventry wants to see house building and local employment move hand in hand. 'We have fewer powers than a UDC would have to get jobs in alongside homes,' says Millar. Daventry fought off an original government proposal to concentrate its growth in villages, he adds.

The councils also hope that the UDC will attract more government money than they could secure individually, as well as giving the private sector greater confidence to invest in brownfield sites rather than fight battles to develop greenfield ones.

Rooker has earmarked 22.8 million for Northamptonshire as a whole, of which 2.5 million is for immediate growth and infrastructure projects in Daventry and Towcester. Otherwise, the specific funding for the UDC has yet to be decided.

Legislation limits UDC boards to 13 members. West Northamptonshire Corporation is expected to draw six public sector members from the county council, the three boroughs, English Partnerships the East Midlands Development Agency and seven from the private or voluntary sectors. It will have the normal UDC powers to acquire, hold, manage, reclaim and dispose of land and property and to act to secure development and regeneration. But, instead of having to convince developers to even set foot in the area, it will be trying to steer them to the sites it prefers, rather than those they might otherwise choose.

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