As the plan to build sustainable communities on public land begins to take shape, we should make social inclusion a condition for funding and planning permission

Last Friday I took a trip into the future. With a portfolio of more than 100 former NHS sites now in English Partnerships’ hands and with the Housing Corporation set to pump a lot of money into affordable housing on these sites, I took a trip to an old mental hospital site at Napsbury, near St Albans, currently being redeveloped by a major developer and a housing association, to see what I could learn.

The first lesson is that developing a sustainable community on some of these sites is not going to be easy. Most are at least some distance from the nearest settlement, meaning that trips to school, health clinic or even just the shops cannot be done on foot. In some cases it will be possible to persuade a bus service to stop at the sites but the frequency and cost effectiveness of such provision will usually be an issue.

This is a particularly important issue for social housing tenants, as car ownership cannot be assumed. Availability of public transport will therefore be taken into account in making our investment decisions.

The second lesson is that one has to work very hard on these schemes to avoid their feeling like a gated community. It’s important that each site is properly masterplanned, and for new routes and entrances to be punched through them to integrate with other local roads.

Overall, the design quality at St Albans was high, with real care being taken by the developer to respect and complement the scale and style of the original hospital buildings.

More worrying was the separation of the market housing, low-cost home ownership and social rented housing into three distinct areas. This has already begun to create a “them” and “us” mentality, with the home owners blaming anti-social behaviour and criminality on the tenants, even though the police are almost certain the problems are being caused by outsiders and, ironically, it is the social tenants who have been instrumental in setting up a neighbourhood watch.

This degree of separation is something that we will not accept in future in terms of providing grant aid. While we will not insist in every case on full pepperpotting of the development, we will at least want to see different blocks mixed up within the development. As with comparable schemes such as Tower Village in Northampton and Hampton in Cambridgeshire, we want to be in a position where, from the outside of the homes at least, it is very difficult to tell the tenure of the housing.

As at Napsbury, some of the NHS sites will already be in parkland settings, providing a real sense of freedom for the children. However, again, it was noticeable that all the quality public space was on the home owners’ side of the main drive, with little provision and neglected landscaping for the social tenants. This is an area where we will need to get tough in terms of our grant conditions. Planning authorities will also need to toughen up their act.

The separation of market housing, low-cost home ownership and social rented housing has already begun to create a ‘them and us’ mentality

The final lesson is that, where possible, we should develop these sites at a scale and density that allows other uses to be included within the curtilage. Where the site allows, this should mean a settlement size that will allow for a nursery, a primary school, a primary care centre, shops, a pub and a worship centre. Ideally, we should also include some commercial development and sheltered housing. This will mean there is a strong sense of activity throughout the day, and can make the difference between a neighbourhood and an enclave.

After the Second World War, the impetus of the new towns was for macro-planning of new settlements on a grand scale, with the effective nationalisation of land to make that happen. Now, our approach is far more opportunistic, and is driven by the pattern of previous public uses.

The problem is that the drivers for the location of the original public investment and those of 21st-century living may be different. With hospitals and defence, relative isolation was often desirable, whether it was in countering the spread of tuberculosis or making artillery training possible. Now we seek integration.

Even with the new towns, some of the choices of location turned out to be wrong and even where they were right, the follow-through did not always result in sustainable communities. But it does mean that we are going to have to work hard and be very demanding if we are to turn the public sector land portfolio into neighbourhoods that enhance the social and environmental fabric of our nation.

English Partnerships’ track record, particularly in respect of the Millennium Communities, will stand them in good stead, and we will work in partnership with them and the development community to ensure the opportunity is realised.

Jon Rouse is chief executive of the Housing Corporation