New plans for 14 new garden villages promise to tackle the housing crisis, but will they simply create a new wave of 1960s’ car-centric developments or will this be the government’s opportunity to create 21st century exemplar places to live?
The garden villages have been defined as areas with anything from 1,500 to 10,000 homes with prospects to provide around 48,000 homes in total. The government also announced its support for three new garden towns – of over 10,000 homes each – in Aylesbury, Taunton and Harlow & Gilston.
As part of the announcement, the government has said that the new villages – which are situated from Devon to Derbyshire and Cornwall to Cumbria – will be distinct new places with their own community facilities, rather than extensions of existing urban areas.
However, developments of this size are unlikely to stimulate significant job opportunities within their boundaries, meaning the average person will need to travel to get to work. As distinct new places, they are also unlikely to be built within walking distance of an existing railway station. At such small size, being able to make a financial case to build a spur off a nearby rail line is also improbable.
This connection is key. How it is developed could affect just how successful and integrated the new communities will be.
So if they are to make any dent in the housing crisis, they need to appeal to the working demographic by offering sustainable means of transport – connecting workers to jobs. They must not simply evolve into retreats for retirees to enjoy the quiet, green and pleasant land.
The government therefore needs to not pay lip service to sustainability and put a robust public transport system in place to cut the ties to the traditional car.
“These small developments have the potential to be really good for encouraging walking and cycling locally,” says Mott MacDonald development manager – cities Jo Baker. “However, the danger is, unless you have good external connectivity then you lapse into car connectivity anyway.”
This statement of intent may be obvious, but it will not be easy to implement.
Lessons could be learnt from the new Ebbsfleet garden city. It is being built to the east of London and has a high speed rail connection into St Pancras, but despite gaining planning consent for 15,000 new homes in the early noughties, it has delivered just 500 homes.
“The Ebbsfleet project has been really slow to deliver in terms of housing number and that’s in a key location which should have been highly desirable, but it’s just not addressing concerns of people around the country,” says Baker.
Ebbsfleet garden city
Ebbsfleet was the government’s flagship new garden town with 15,000 new homes. It was ideally situated to the east of London with a high speed train line into St Pancras taking only 19 minutes. Planning permission for the new town was granted in 2002.
However, nearly 15 years later and despite an injection of £310M from the government, only around 500 homes have been built on the old quarry site. A report into Unlocking the potential of the Thames estuary in February 2014 – penned among others by Lord Andrew Adonis – said that although the new development was in an excellent location, the housing development had stalled.
The report blamed the fact that the developers were not able to pay for the required additional infrastructure up front and the three local authorities were unwilling to renegotiate the planning consent, despite changed economic conditions.
“The whole project has now reached something of a stalemate,” the report stated. “A New Town development corporation could unilaterally solve this planning impasse and fund the upfront costs of phased site remediation and infrastructure development to overcome the cash flow problems, recouping the costs from housing developers at a later stage.”
Funding for the villages is one of the areas which could create a sticking point to be able to develop a fully integrated plan. The government has given access to a £6M fund over the next two financial years to support the delivery of the new projects. The rest will come from developers. However, who drives the development could lead to problems. There is little incentive for private developers to venture from the norm or build housing quickly which would flood the market with new homes, both of which would reduce their return.
“There is an opportunity to do interesting things with these new schemes, but the degree to which we manage to do that will depend on the amount of funding and the ability of the local authority to track, monitor and encourage and enforce new models of delivery,” says Baker.
The chicken and egg scenario is a familiar story. It is questionable whether developers are keen to be the first to take the plunge by investing hard cash – as the Nine Elms development in Battersea, London has demonstrated.
This undeveloped land in the heart of London lay dormant for a number of decades, with developers and government doing a merry dance around their handbags. Developers were unwilling to invest until new transport infrastructure commitments were made, and the government was unwilling to make a solid decision to invest.
However, the government’s subsequent approval of the Northern Line Extension, created an explosion of development in the area and it is now one of the hottest for residential developments in London.
Opportunities to put in central high strength wifi networks, electric car charging points and sustainable drainage strategies could also contribute to the garden villages’ success, but as Baker points out, setting up the funding for these utopian dreams may not be easy.
“If it was public sector funded then it’s easy to make sure that this happens, but private funded, you’ve got to set it up very carefully,” he says.
To make these areas truly solve the housing crisis, the government will need to play an active role in providing a fully integrated transport and infrastructure plan upfront.
After all, if left to their own devices developers will simply build homes, it’s up to the government to put up homes in places where people want to live and make them truly functional.
New garden village locations
- Long Marston in Stratford-on-Avon
- Oxfordshire Cotswold in West Oxfordshire
- Deenethorpe in East Northants
- Culm in Mid Devon
- Welborne near Fareham in Hampshire
- West Carclaze in Cornwall
- Dunton Hills near Brentwood, Essex
- Spitalgate Heath in South Kesteven, Lincolnshire
- Halsnead in Knowsley, Merseyside
- Longcross in Runnymede and Surrey Heath
- Bailrigg in Lancaster
- Infinity Garden Village in South Derbyshire and Derby City area
- St Cuthberts near Carlisle City, Cumbria
- North Cheshire in Cheshire East