New Urbanism sweeps Britain: from Seaside to Sherford.

Any development with Prince Charles’ name attached to it is bound to stir comment. And this one is a biggie: an entirely new town to be built over the green fields of the Sherford Valley outside Plymouth in Devon. Over the next 20-25 years, some 4,500 new homes of all kinds will be built, along with schools, shops, businesses, hospital and health clinics and its own fast bus link to the city. So is this Poundbury Mark Two – a scaled-up version of the Prince’s famous throwback new model suburb of Poundbury outside Dorchester? Is he becoming chief planner to New Albion?

Well, not quite. Poundbury was built on Charles’ Duchy of Cornwall land and is his personal hobby, embodying his diehard traditionalist views. The Sherford “New Community”, to give it its working title, will be very different. Charles does not own or control the land there, and is not suddenly going to turn freelance developer. Nor has he been directly involved. Heavens above, even modern architecture will be allowed – so long as it is not too brutish. So what’s the connection?

It’s this. Architects and academics from his Prince’s Foundation, an educational charity concerned with the built environment, have been advising on New Sherford. As evolved between the Foundation, the local authorities and Redtree, the developer for this new town, it will be more like a British equivalent of Seaside, the “new urbanist” development in Florida that has been mightily influential among traditional-minded planners. Seaside has enjoyed rocketing house prices and was used as Jim Carrey’s hometown in the hit movie The Truman Show, but is seen as a lodestone by the New Urbanists. Who think places should be for people rather than speeding cars and megastores.

New Sherford needed a bit of direction. This big new community – prompted by the rapid growth of Plymouth in recent years – was fiercely resisted by locals who hated the fact that it would be built across verdant farmland rather than on the ex-industrial land known as “brownfield”. Their protests were in vain: the scheme was officially adopted in 2004. But then, it was seen as a sprawling collection of linked villages. When the scheme’s backers started to think hard about the place, they called in the Prince’s Foundation for advice. And as the Foundation’s director, American urbanist Hank Dittmar, says, the original idea was all wrong.

“They were called villages, but I would call them housing estates,” says Dittmar. “Our task was: how to make it into a sustainable town and define the boundaries of its growth?”

By rearranging the proposed sprawling estates into one town with a real centre and a real high street with shops – laid out along roads designed to slow down motor traffic – the area of countryside lost to development will be much less, says Dittmar. It is a tighter development than the original proposal, but even so there will be room for all kinds of house types, from social-rent flats in the centre to detached one-off houses on the edges. This is nothing to do with architectural style: in fact such high-density, anti-suburban solutions are now almost universally adopted by planning experts – though all too often ignored by housebuilders and local authorities.

The Prince’s foundation is getting pretty busy these days, being called in to help masterplan developments all over the country. Northampton, Aldershot, Harlow and Lincoln have all called on the Foundation’s services. Dittmar calls them “exemplar developments”. And although Charles is much more hands-off than he used to be, he still gets to see progress reports on all the projects, says Dittmar. Sherofrd will be no exception.

And yes, contrary to popular belief when it comes to anything connected with Charles, modernists will be welcome. “People tend to forget that the design codes for Seaside were explicitly intended to allow modernist as well as traditional build,” says Ditttmar. “We are not so concerned with style. We are trying to frame the public realm.”

“Design codes” are a hot topic among today’s urbanists. They mean setting down ground rules for what may or may not be built – how big, what materials, how close to the road edge, what proportion of glass to masonry, and so on. The idea is to allow variation – such as you get with the jumble of buildings in traditional towns and villages – while preventing monstrosities. The theory is that style becomes irrelevant, since designing a house in such a context is no different from adding a new building to an existing town.

Whatever, New Sherford is destined to be both new and old-fashioned: sustainable, providing as many as 5,000 jobs, generating a lot of its own power, and being walkable. There will even be allotments. And as Dittmar says, it has to be big to work. “You have to have enough critical mass to generate a real town”. The planning application will be made this autumn.

Crucially, it aims to steer clear of the usual-suspect housebuilders. James Koe, the project’s director at Redtree – backed by the Royal Bank of Scotland – aims to develop the town directly as much as possible, rather than farming out parcels of land to the familiar spec-builder names. Housebuilders know only how to build houses, he says – not communities. As he puts it bluntly: “Anyone with a track record in the past 50 years is pretty much admitting to failure.”

So, if it’s going to be so great, won’t house prices there go shooting up out of reach? It’s a problem Dittmar is aware of. “The market place will always respond to quality,” he says. “In the long run, our response is that there should be more communities that people like, where housebuilders are competing on quality.”

And do you know? I don’t think anyone but the most cynical volume housebuilder would disagree with him on that one.

© Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, 7th May 2006, as “Twinned with Poundbury”.