New Garden Cities might be the answer to the housing crisis

With some 20 years operating as a chartered surveyor in and around London, the recent entrants for the Wolfson Economic Prize caught my eye.

One way of solving the current housing crisis would be to build as many as 40 new garden cities over the next 20 years. Each garden city would contain between 10,000 and 50,000 new homes.

This is the view of the finalists for the 2014 Wolfson Economics Prize. But would this be a politically acceptable way of providing badly-needed homes?

Entrants were asked to provide an answer to the question “How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?”

With a first prize of £250,000 up for grabs (making the Wolfson Economics Prize the second biggest economics prize in the world after the Nobel Prize) it is hardly surprising that 279 entries were received – including 20 entries from children under 16 years.

Although most of the finalists are principally town planners and architects one entry which has made it to the last five was submitted by housing charity Shelter.

Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City vision

Garden cities were the vision of Ebenezer Howard. In 1898 he described how ‘the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination’.

“At the heart of the Garden City ideals is the development of holistically planned new settlements which enhance the natural environment and provide high-quality affordable housing and locally accessible jobs in beautiful, healthy and sociable communities” – to quote the Town and Country Planning Association.

But there have been few such cities bult in accordance with Ebenezer Howard’s original concept. The original and best-known is Letchworth, followed by Welwyn Garden City.

Although Hampstead Garden Suburb is often thought of in this connection it is really a suburb added to an existing town rather than a self-contained city. After the second world war a number of new towns were built which in some ways followed the garden city concept.

However few people who are familiar with places such as Harlow, Basildon or Newton Aycliffe would now think of them as ‘garden cities’.

The idea of Garden Cities may be attractive but will people accept them?

The real question is whether the country now wants to see a number of new towns plonked down in the middle of the country or whether it will be better to allow existing cities, towns and villages to expand to cope with the demand for new homes.

A survey conducted by pollsters Populus shows that almost three quarters (74%) of those polled backed garden cities. Support is stronger among older people and homeowners than among the population generally. Over two thirds of the public (68%) also said that building new garden cities would better protect the countryside from development than the alternatives.

But while many like the idea in theory how popular would it be in practice?

New garden cities would almost by definition have to be built on greenfield sites. Plans for any new development in rural areas usually attract widespread opposition not only from locals but from organisations such as the Council for the Preservation of Rural England.

One cannot help thinking of the example of HS2 – for years people have been saying we should make more use of railways, but plans for a new main line have generated a huge amount of opposition.

New cities would require central planning and compulsory purchase powers

The need for some sort of central planning is a common feature of the proposals by the contestants for the Wolfson Economics Prize. Garden cities have always been a dream for planners – they can start off with a clean sheet and impose their vision on the land, rather than having to work round an existing town plan.
Some of the contenstants suggest that a central Development Corporation should be set up or propose Garden City Mayors heading up local Garden City Commissions.

Either way any such schemes would require government support and perhaps legislation. But all this implies imposing new cities upon existing local areas, perhaps against the wishes of the existing inhabitants. And compulsory purchase powers would have to be used to acquire the necessary land.

Would that be acceptable in the current political climate? At the time the post-war new towns were being planned there was a need to provide new homes to replace those destroyed or damaged by bombing. There was also a general acceptance of central government planning.

But the mood of the country has changed and there is now far less acceptance of central planning.

Would new garden cities be self-contained communities or just new suburbs?

One of the ideas behind the original garden city concept was that such communities would be largely self-contained, and provide not just housing but shops, employment and leisure facilities.

In late Victorian times when few people had access to private transport that was a viable concept. However in the twentyfirst century with most homes having at least one car this ideal is perhaps less necessary.

And while there might be a high demand for new homes would there also be a sufficient demand for commercial and industrial premises in new garden cities? If existing firms relocated that could lead to a loss of jobs in their previous locations.

Of course there is a lot in the idea that people should not have to travel long distances to work. But it is also apparent that many thousands of people living in new towns such as Crawley, Harlow or Basildon now commute to London. So it is likely that any new garden cities built in areas such as North Kent (as suggested by some contestants) or even further afield will still become just dormitory towns for London.

It’s easy to draw up plans but harder to get new homes built

Clearly something needs to be done to solve the current housing shortage, and especially to provide homes that are really affordable for those who need them.

But it’s a lot easier to draw up grandiose theoretical plans than to actually get new homes built.

Some of the problems are highlighted by looking at Oxford (2011 population: 150,000). Just 60 homes were built in the borough of Oxford during the 12 months to 31 March, against a target of 600 homes per year.

One of the finalists has suggested expanding existing large towns in line with garden city principles, and set out how such a concept could be applied to Oxford.

But one of the reasons for the lack of new development in the area is the shortage of land availability because of green belt restrictions and geographical complications such as flood plains.

Certainly the idea of new garden cities is worth looking at. But since they require a long time to plan before any homes can be built or occupied we must also be looking at ways to get more homes built quickly.

Post Author: Frances Traynor