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April 9, 2008

New Eco-Towns should have development trusts

New guidance from the English Communities Department (DCLG) envisages using locally-owned anchor organisations like development trusts, so that community and physical infrastructure is developed simultaneously in the UK`s new generation of eco-towns.

Regeneration and Renewal

From the start, the eco-towns should create opportunities for new residents to build their communities, and create development trusts to deliver local public services. These are the key messages of new guidance on eco-towns by the Department for Communities and Local Government and campaigners the Town and Country Planning Association (R&R, 28 March, p2).

These aspirations cannot be faulted: early investment and an upfront community development process – including mapping existing services, building resource centres to provide space for activities, organisations and small firms, and recruiting community workers – are sensible moves. Crucially, the simultaneous planning and implementation of physical, environmental and community development are integral to achieving cohesive and sustainable communities. Timely advice, but does it go far enough?

Planners and developers often talk about community, but it usually comes a poor second to hard infrastructure projects, with such facilities being provided long after residents arrive. Fantastic community capital projects may emerge, but often with limited revenue attached or little thought given to financial sustainability. The last generations of new towns are littered with crumbling, cash-starved community centres desperately turning too late to the development trust model to inject entrepreneurialism.

The guidance pinpoints the key factors in creating sustainable community infrastructure: early planning and investment coupled with a key delivery vehicle – namely a community trust with an endowment released over time – to manage public services. However, the guidance fails to explore the true potential of trusts.
Trusts can provide a community’s glue, manage facilities and create income. But such activity also needs ongoing funding through local taxation or grants. The alternative is building enterprise into the endowment, using freehold property and land to attract community projects such as rented business space and energy projects.
Community investment, ownership and management through a trust can deliver long-term benefits to residents and happy places to attract potential purchasers of new developments.