The government taskforce charged with halting the decline of English cities has published its interim report. How will it go about its job?
Two days ago, Lord Rogers' 14-strong urban taskforce launched a report that could mark the beginning of a revolution in the planning, design and financial policies that govern our cities. With the backing of deputy prime minister John Prescott, the interim report of the urban taskforce has attempted to find strategies to reverse the decline of English city centres.

Building gained exclusive advance access to the report, which calls for a faster planning process and improved powers for local authorities to kick-start development. The taskforce also wants to see urban design promoted as a career option and changes to VAT rules to aid brownfield development. If these goals are not watered down in the final report, which is due in early summer, they will send a strong message to the government that local authorities, architects and housebuilders want radical change.

The report offers a raft of suggestions, but is short on detail. There is likely to be fierce debate among taskforce members as ideas are whittled down and turned into detailed, practical recommendations. But, even then, the proposals will go only as far as the support they win from the Treasury, the DETR and other government departments allows.

Prescott sets the ball rolling

Established by John Prescott in April last year, the taskforce was set up following the government command document Planning for the Communities of the Future. In turn, the taskforce's final recommendations are expected to form the basis of the government urban white paper, due later this year. The taskforce was subdivided into three working groups, examining the design, planning and financial barriers to urban renewal.

The groups' ideas are summarised under seven subject headings – urban design, land-use planning, land assembly, recycling land and buildings, finance, skills, and roles and responsibilities. These interim conclusions are based on the 300 responses to the taskforce's call for ideas from bodies such as the House Builders' Federation, the RIBA and the RICS, and submissions from experts.

The taskforce has also drawn on three focus group sessions held as part of a MORI study into the kind of housing people want, and the factors that discourage them from moving to urban areas. Taskforce members also trawled England and the rest of the world for examples of good and bad urban development, and the lessons that can be learned.

The personal touch

The interim report bears the distinctive mark of Lord Rogers. In the preface, he writes that the urban taskforce's work is long overdue, adding that England's urban environments are seriously eroded – he calls derelict urban areas "gashes in the urban fabric". The taskforce chairman says England needs "more compact city centres, diverse communities, strengthened neighbourhoods, ecological cities, resource-efficient cities, beautiful cities … where spatial planning and not negative planning has shaped them".

According to the report, the first area requiring attention is the creation of a "national urban design framework". The taskforce wants the government to give a clear lead to planners and local authorities on the type of development it wants to promote, although this is more likely to be achieved by a flexible blueprint than by legally binding planning policy guidance notes.

Royal Town Planning Institute director of public affairs David Rose supports the idea, but would still like to see the government taking a strong lead. "We can't have a planning system with a few vague priorities at national level and all the minutiae dealt with at local level. We need national priorities from the government," he says. He cites planning developments around transport hubs as one example where clarification would help local authorities to set their local land-use plans.

Land-use planning is one area where the taskforce acknowledges there is a problem.

It says: "We need to find ways of reducing delays and we need to be much clearer about the purpose and limitations of the planning gain system." Reducing delays by introducing a fast-track application process has been mooted.

HBF chief executive Roger Humber says housebuilders want fast-track planning appeals for brownfield sites: "Many local authorities are understaffed and it can take 18 months to get [planning] permission." He calls the current planning system inefficient and says delays cost housebuilders vast amounts of money. Humber insists that he does not wish to condemn the taskforce but hopes it will "not concentrate too much on the horizon and fail to concentrate on the complex and boring things that need to be done to get brownfield development".

The problems of land assembly, or obtaining land that may not be available for development, are being addressed, with a possible strengthening of compulsory purchase powers on the cards. Also, run-down areas in need of development could become "designated urban areas", where more flexible land assembly rules would apply.

Housing Corporation chief Anthony Mayer chaired the taskforce working party considering fiscal incentives to make brownfield development more attractive. The panel is likely to recommend levelling the playing field for VAT on housebuilding and conversion, with the current 17.5% rate for conversion of housing stock lowered to 5%. The same would apply to new build, which is not currently subject to VAT. A greenfield tax is also being discussed, as is US-style tax increment financing – taxes over a certain level raised from regeneration zones are ring-fenced for reinvestment in the area. However, it is unclear to what extent these ideas would win Treasury backing.

A clear need for design sense

Rogers is a strong advocate of the idea that local authorities should adopt "3D spatial planning", or at least have greater awareness of design. Alan Stones, head of historic buildings and design at Essex County Council, agrees: "Visual design input just hasn't existed in local authority plans. It seems to me that the taskforce is calling for greater urban design content in planning briefs – something there's not been enough of in the past." Stones says there is a shortage of the type of urban designer who would be involved in the planning process if Rogers' spatial planning proposals were widely taken up by local authorities. "There are a lot of underemployed architects around who ought to be pressed into service," he says. He also thinks planners should acquire urban design skills.

The taskforce chairman also identified skills shortages as a factor in urban development, saying academic institutions should be "developing the skill levels of architects, planners and craftsmen to promote lifelong learning along the lines it exists in countries like America". New urban design courses or modules in existing degrees could follow.

The taskforce has been criticised for being too design-led and going beyond its original remit. It has tried to show how physical environments shape communities but also how "social injustice and lack of social welfare" can counteract the benefits of urban regeneration. The interim report hints that the taskforce will even tell the government to put its house in order and address welfare policy, race relations, family breakdown and crime in towns. No wonder, as Civic Trust policy officer Steve Evans cautions, "the feeling is that there are a lot of good proposals but some of it will be a pure wish list".

What the taskforce wants

  • A planning process that can deal with applications in weeks, not months
  • A national urban design framework that local authorities can adopt and adapt
  • A new breed of urban design professionals, and training for them
  • Tax changes to facilitate development on brownfield sites
  • New compulsory purchase powers for land assembly to redevelop urban blackspots

Two urban models that found favour with the taskforce …

Chicago The taskforce was impressed by Chicago’s innovative scheme to boost brownfield development. The city has a tax increment financing system, whereby taxes over a certain level raised from designated regeneration zones are ring-fenced for reinvestment in the area. Amsterdam Amsterdam’s transport system and car-free housing are viewed as good models. In high-density housing, space for shops, play areas and community centres is created by a car parking provision of fewer than 0.3 spaces a unit. The city also has an integrated transport network.

… and two that didn’t

Royal Docks,London An experiment in urban regeneration, the West Silvertown Urban Village in London Docklands was criticised by the taskforce for its lack of clear structure or shape, patchy quality of design and housing blocks that clash with surrounding buildings. Dudley,West Midlands The Merry Hill out-of-town shopping centre has had a negative effect on Dudley town centre, drawing shoppers away from the high-street and hurting small traders, says the taskforce. It has also created a local community over-reliant on cars.

Who’s who on the taskforce

Lord Rogers Taskforce chairman and long-time Labour supporter, architect Richard Rogers last year wrote Cities for a Small Planet, in which he compares cities to living organisms. His vision is of an urban renaissance in England. Peter Hall Professor of planning at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, Hall has expressed doubts over whether it is possible to build even 60% of the government’s target of 4.4 million new homes by 2016 on brownfield land. Richard Burdett The former director of the Architecture Foundation is now a director of city policy at the London School of Economics, where he runs a course on cities, design and architecture. Tony Burton Assistant director of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. Alan Cherry Chairman of housebuilder Countryside Properties, Cherry has a reputation for being one of the team’s most down-to-earth members. Martin Crookston A director of architect and planning consultant Llewelyn-Davies, Crookston is a planner and economist by training. David Lunts The chief executive of the Urban Villages Forum chaired the taskforce’s panel looking into barriers to urban regeneration. Anthony Dunnett The former chief executive of English Partnerships is now head of the South-east Regional Development Agency. Phil Kirby The environment director of BG Properties replaced Stanhope’s Stuart Lipton, who resigned from the taskforce. Anne Power Professor Power is head of housing at the London School of Economics. Sir Crispin Tickell Chairman of the Government Panel on Sustainable Development. Anthony Mayer Deputy chairman of the taskforce and chief executive of the Housing Corporation, Mayer chaired the group investigating fiscal initiatives to encourage urban regeneration. Wendy Thompson Thompson is chief executive of the London Borough of Newham, which is pioneering its own urban renewal scheme. Lorna Walker The Ove Arup & Partners engineer and chemist runs the firm’s environmental group. Jon Rouse Rouse is head of the taskforce’s independent secretariat; he is on secondment from English Partnerships.