New Garden Cities for the 21st century?

It is generally accepted that not enough new homes are being built to meet growing need. The idea of creating new garden cities remains an attractive option to meet this shortfall and both the Government and Labour Party have supported the concept. The issue of where settlements should go remains a sensitive issue and the practicalities of how they should be funded have divided expert opinion. Recent pledges by private companies to invest in new settlements have brought garden cities into the news headlines once again.

What are garden cities?

Ebenezer Howard is famous for his 1898 vision of towns that would take the best elements of the city (good employment prospects, relative wealth and good communications) and merge it with the health benefits and more affordable setting of the countryside. Parkland was central to the design, as was covered space for shopping. The “Garden City” was intended to be of limited size – 32,000 people and surrounded by an agricultural belt to help make it self sufficient in food and to prevent unchecked sprawl.

To realise this vision a series of Garden City Companies were founded. Investors became shareholders, expecting a return, although some of the proceeds went into a community trust fund. Letchworth Garden City was founded in 1903 as the first Garden City. Welwyn Garden City was the second in 1922 and initially built with private capital. It was later developed by the State as one of the first generation of post-1945 New Towns.

Garden Cities in the future?

Many advocates believe that with the right planning, political support and financial incentives new Garden Cities could be the answer to the existing housing shortfall.

Political will

Both the Government and the Labour Party have supported the idea of new planned settlements.

In 2011 the then housing Minister said that “the scale of housing need that we now face means that we need imaginative proposals to come forward which get us back to Howard’s original ideas.” In a March 2012 speech the Prime Minister said that Government would do more work on “how to apply the principles of garden cities to areas with high potential growth, in places people want to live.”  The Government’s 2012 National Planning Policy Framework supports the establishment of new settlements following garden city principles. Government also supports new large scale housing developments through the Local Infrastructure Fund.

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has said that Labour would look to revive the development corporations that had previously been used to develop new towns. The Labour Party has recently set up a housing commission, led by Sir Michael Lyons, to look at “”how to drive forward a new generation of new towns and garden cities”.

In January Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, cautioned however, that “two or three big garden cities” were “not going to solve the housing problem”.

Delivering Garden Cities

There is disagreement about how new towns or garden cities should be delivered and whether their basis should be public sector support or private investment:

  • The Centre for Policy Studies has recommended that the private sector should be free to design, fund and build new garden cities; that development rights for their construction should be auctioned; and that covenants should lay down responsibilities for infrastructure such as urban parks, retail shops and leisure facilities.
  • In contrast, property consultancy GVA said that evidence showed the market would never deliver planned settlements given issues of infrastructure funding, land assembly, local politics, local market and value protection. It advocated “empowerment” of the public sector to lead the delivery of new planned settlements, with Government backed funding.
  • The Town and Country Planning Association has recommended a mixed approach which would allow local authorities, landowners and developers to enter into a “Garden City Joint Venture”.

Ashford Borough Council and Oxford City Council are both reported to have asked the Government for support in developing garden cities in their areas by “de-risking” the project financially and reviewing green belt protection policy.

Some private sector companies, including Legal & General, Aviva and Prudential have recently announced their willingness to help finance new towns and garden cities through pension funds.

The Wolfson Economics Prize 2014 will be awarded to the entrant who offers the best answer to the question “How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?” Entrants have been advised to name a location for their proposed settlement.

The question of where new garden cities should be located is likely to remain sensitive and contentious. It will be interesting to follow the debate on this issue in the run up to the general election and beyond.

Author: Louise Smith