When is a Garden City not a Garden City?

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The DCLG’s second wave of garden settlements under garden city principles hits the right notes but still falls short on specifics according to David Edwards, Director at Place-Make

In March 2016, the DCLG released a prospectus for the development of up to twelve self-contained villages and an unspecified number of new towns and cities according to ‘Garden City’ principles. Representing the most ambitious expansion programme since the end of the Second World War, this initiative follows a similar process from April 2014, which led to the selection of six pioneer projects at Bicester, Basingstoke, Didcot, Ebbsfleet, North Essex and North Northamptonshire.

While the 2014 prospectus focussed on new ‘cities’ of greater than 15,000 homes, the current initiative targets settlements of varying scales with each village to have 1,500 to 10,000 homes, and each town or city to have more than 10,000 homes. The deadline for stakeholders that are interested in developing a garden village is 31st July 2016 while according to DCLG, new towns and cities may be presented ‘on a rolling basis’.

The overarching intent of the programme is clear: the government has committed to building one million new homes by 2020 and developing a series of new settlements will significantly support this. If there were a silver bullet for resolving the housing crisis then building new towns would be it.

Since 2014, much has been written about the success and failure of the pioneer project and also, the role of new settlements as part of an integrated development approach. Now, with three and a half years remaining for the government to meet its self-imposed quota, the DCLG has launched another settlement growth initiative and once again it has tied this to the garden city’s flagpole. Through the experience of the pioneer projects together with recent publications and Policy Advice Notes related to Garden City and New Town developments (notably by the Town and Country Planning Association – TCPA), all parties should be better informed concerning the planning, design and delivery of these new settlements. However, in repacking the 2014 initiative, three key questions may be raised:

  • Is a second wave necessary;
  • Has the DCLG responded to the ‘lessons learned’ from the pioneer projects; and
  • Is there sufficient information available to guide and inform stakeholders to deliver proposals that will adhere to DCLG’s vision of a garden village or a garden town?

In addressing the necessity for another prospectus, the DCLG note that up to 100,000 new homes had been created by the 2014 programme at an average up to 16,500 homes per new city. Assuming that each of the twelve garden villages will generate an average of 5,750 homes and a further six garden cities will generate up to 16,500 homes, the second wave of new settlement development could deliver a minimum of up to 170,000 new homes. Coupled with the pioneer projects, the total number of new homes that could be delivered under the garden settlement initiative would be up to 270,000, which is almost 25% of the 2020 quota.

Based on this, a ‘silver bullet’ it is not. Rather, given the potential capacity that could be created through new town development and the consequential impact on existing urban and rural areas, it could even be argued that 25% is conservative.

Conversely, once these figures are translated into population and area, the impact of potential development at such a scale is immediately apparent. Assuming an average household population of 2.3 (Eurostat, 2014) and an average density of up to 40 dwellings per hectare for a ‘garden city’ character (CABE, 2005), this would result in new accommodation for up to 460,000 residents across an area of up to 6,750 hectares/ 67 km2 (excluding supporting facilities). As a broad example, if this were concentrated, it would equate to a city of a similar scale and population to Bradford or Liverpool. Given the significant investment that would be required for such an undertaking, it is understandable that the current initiative is for a range of settlements of varying scale that can be evenly distributed to reduce impact and also, connected to existing infrastructure and transport links.

One of the most significant criticisms of the 2014 pioneer projects was a perceived lack of commitment to affordable housing, with Construction Minister Nick Boles acknowledging that none of the 15,000 homes planned at Ebbsfleet Garden City needed to be affordable and that the government had not set targets for other settlements. In hindsight, this was a fundamental misgiving – the model for Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City was built on the pillars of affordability and social cohesion. In removing its social core, the holistic character and appearance of any new settlement would invariably vary from that of a traditional garden city.

This aspect appears to be more firmly addressed in the current prospectus, which notes; ‘high-quality starter homes, to be offered at least a 20% discount for first-time buyers, have a place within well-designed new communities’. To deliver this, varying mechanisms are noted as being considered or are under consultation, including tying affordable housing to S106 agreements, a commitment to update the New Towns Act 1981 and the formation of a ‘New Town Development Corporation’. While still falling short of binding commitments, this is at least a step in the right direction to ensure that new housing will be available to those that need it most.

Supplementary aspects to the 2014 prospectus include a commitment to involve more small and medium-sized developers, greater access to funding mechanisms and greater support through the planning process. Through each of these, it is hoped that proposals will be more rapidly translated to front doors, which would resolve another criticism of the pioneer projects.

With a greater commitment to affordability, can we, therefore, assume the 2016 settlements will look more like our romantic visions of a Garden City? No, not necessarily. In the prospectus of 2014, the ten principles of a Garden City according to the TCPA were listed beneath the title of What do we mean by ‘Garden Cities?. However, any such definition is missing from the 2016 version, which instead adopts a more ambiguous approach, noting; ‘we do not consider that there is a single template for a garden village, town or city’.

Unfortunately, for me, this is where the new prospectus is most exposed. While the DCLG would emphasise, ‘we are clear that this prospectus is not looking to support places which merely use ‘garden’ as a convenient label’, without attempting to define this there is a fear that such a situation will undoubtedly occur.

It should be emphasised that to qualify for selection, each new settlement must adhere to local, national and regional policy and guidelines regarding form, quantum and character. In this respect, it is not the purpose of the prospectus to duplicate the wealth of material that is already available to guide and inform new development in the UK. While acknowledging this, given the prospectus represents a significant ‘top down’ initiative for national growth and also, a call for expressions of interest from prospective local areas and local communities, for me, some definition of the components of the target model is needed. After all, without this, by what guiding principles may stakeholders refer to ensure that new development really does reflect the DCLG’s vision of a garden village, town or city and not the extension of an ‘anywhere’?

Ultimately, the current expression of interest does appear to resolve some of the core criticisms of the first wave of the pioneer projects. Achieving affordability addresses the crux of the housing crisis while also supporting the underlying ethos of the traditional garden city. At the same time, policy reforms, the formation of a delivery committee in the New Town Development Corporation and opening up opportunities to developers of varying economies of scale should also fast-track delivery.

The ambiguity concerning definition is also understood – applying a blueprint will invite criticism through clarity. However, without seeking to define the physical, economic and environmental components of the 21st Century garden settlement, there is a fear this will remain a socially acceptable label for piecemeal development to occur without any overarching sense of place, character or community.

In the meantime, for any prospective teams that are interested in developing a garden village, town or city, responses on the back of a postcard please to Homes and Communities Agency by the end of July 2016! ■

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David Edwards RIBA, MAA

Director

Place-Make

Tel: +44 (0)208 226 6828

info@place-make.com

www.place-make.com

Twitter @Place_Make

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