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New alliance calls for “Smart Growth” investment in cities, not more 1980s-style sprawl

20 February 2013
A new alliance of civic, environmental and transport bodies including the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), Campaign for Better Transport, and Civic Voice, today calls for a radically new ‘Smart Growth’ (1) approach which they want adopted for any new large scale developments. They are backed by respected figures from all three main political parties, including Tory grandee and former Environment Secretary Lord Deben (John Gummer).

The alliance believes that the low-density, car orientated suburban schemes of the 1970s or 1980s, like Milton Keynes or Bradley Stoke in Bristol, are not the way forward. Instead, for example, new development should blend the well-designed family terraced housing with gardens of a typical British Edwardian suburb (2), with cutting edge practice from across the world, such as recently developed ‘eco-suburbs’ in Freiburg (Germany) and Stockholm. These developments:

  • provide energy-efficient housing at high residential densities;
  • reuse brownfield land as much as possible;
  • are easily linked to town and city centres by public transport; and
  • are designed so that walking or cycling are the norm for everyday travel.

The call comes as the Government prepares to publish a long-awaited prospectus for major new development. According to a little-noticed recent report (3), developers are formulating proposals for a new generation of ‘garden cities’ in south east England, involving up to 250,000 homes on greenfield land, with 170,000 of these to be located either along the M11 and A14 corridors, or between Oxford and Cambridge. Such an approach threatens to take us in precisely the opposite direction to smart growth, increasing congestion on those roads and forcing people to rely on cars.


Conservative peer and former Environment Secretary Lord Deben said: ‘Land, that precious scarce resource, will be at a further premium as the world struggles with rising food prices and scarcity. Let's concentrate on recycling already-used land. There are more than sufficient sites for the housing we need. It only requires imagination, energy, and Government drive to unlock them. Building on green fields is the lazy way to sacrifice our future.’

Labour MP for Stoke on Trent and historian Dr Tristram Hunt said: ‘Britain has so far been spared from US-style, countryside-gobbling, urban creep, but plans to build new cities along the M11 are a recipe for suburban sprawl. Ministers need to focus on keeping our cities alive, and preserve our countryside through smart growth. Good quality, high density housing schemes on brownfield sites should be the priority.’

Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham Martin Horwood said: ‘'The Smart Growth principles offer an alternative to constant overdevelopment of areas already under pressure. Developers will always chase low density, greenfield development regardless of the environmental and social consequences because that is what makes them the most profit. But we need an alternative vision which promotes the recovery of derelict land and buildings, urban regeneration, genuinely sustainable communities and the protection of treasured and important green spaces.’

CPRE Chief Executive Shaun Spiers said: ‘We need many more new homes, but it is equally critical not to repeat past mistakes.  We want new developments that are beautiful in their own right, take up as little of our precious countryside as possible, and save residents from reliance on cars.  If the Government is intent on developing new towns, they must demonstrate how they can be sustainable.  A good start would be to commit to applying smart growth principles in their construction.’

Chris Brown, regeneration expert, concluded: ‘The best towns and cities constantly renew themselves organically for the benefit of their citizens and it’s common sense to make best use of our existing infrastructure. This is what Smart Growth delivers.’


Notes to Editors

1. Smart Growth is a holistic approach to land, transport and community planning. Smart Growth aims to prevent urban sprawl; make best use of brownfield land in towns and cities; provide and encourage sustainable transport; protect countryside and heritage and create sound communities. It was first articulated in North America as a response to the way urban areas had developed there.

The alliance of organisations believes these principles can be adapted and used to achieve similar benefits here. In England alone there is sufficient brownfield land available and suitable for residential development for 1,494,070 new dwellings. This is equivalent to around 6 years’ supply at the building rates the government claims we need and 10 year supply at 2009 building rates. (2009 figures from the National Land Use Database quoted by CPRE, Building on a Small Island, November 2011). Many sites are stalled or part-built due to lack of finance, and the alliance urges the Government to prioritise building on these before sacrificing countryside for new settlements.

A full list of large brownfield sites available for development across England is available from the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) website. The HCA has also shortlisted a number of sites under the Get Britain Building initiative. Some of these will be given Government support to take forward development already granted planning permission. For purely illustrative purposes, some of the larger examples on the shortlist involving brownfield urban sites include:

  • Britannia Music site, Ilford, London (up to 350 new homes)
  • Bromborough Pool, near Port Sunlight, Wirral (up to 228 new homes)
  • New Islington, Greater Manchester (up to 45 new homes)
  • Oceanique, Derry’s Cross, Plymouth (up to 413 new homes)
  • Chatham Place, Reading (up to 184 new homes)

The following brownfield sites are amongst those already receiving funding under the initiative:

  • Western Riverside, Bath (more than 2,000 new homes)
  • Heron’s Reach, Oldham, Greater Manchester (41 new homes)
  • Carlisle Park, Rotherham, South Yorkshire (up to 400 new homes)

More details see Meeting the Growth Challenge – the Smart Growth Approach, the series of principles agreed by the alliance, can be downloaded here.


The signatories to the statement include the following companies and organisations: All Party Parliamentary Light Rail Group; Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland, Association of Small Historic Towns and Villages of the United Kingdom; Campaign for Better Transport; Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales; Campaign to Protect Rural England; Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management; Civic Trust for Wales; Civic Voice; Igloo Regeneration Fund;  Light Rail UK; North of England Civic Trust; Scottish Civic Trust; Ulster Society for Protection of the Countryside.

2. The CPRE London report Family Housing – the power of concentration (April 2008) provides further details, with illustrations and locations, of good practice in some recent housing developments in urban areas. The report is available from the CPRE website.

3. The GVA report, Unlocking Garden Cities (February 2013), is available from the GVA website (see pages 4 and 5 for more details of proposed new settlements along the M11 and A14 corridors).