When George Osborne announces that 15,000 homes will be built, complete with supporting infrastructure, at Ebbsfleet in Kent – the nation’s first new ‘garden city’ for a century – it must have gladdened the hearts of everyone in the construction industry.
And when deputy prime minister Nick Clegg followed the chancellor’s comments with his own announcement that there would be three new garden cities in all, it must have been welcome news indeed.
Except of course that the Ebbsfleet site to which Osborne referred, sounded just as appealing in 2002 when it got outline planning consent. And it doubtless sounded just as good as recently as 2012, when the Department for Communities & Local Government said 22,600 homes would be built there, alongside the High Speed 1 railway station.
Cynics would therefore say it’s all talk. With work started on barely a few hundred homes, why should anyone in the industry take Osborne’s statement seriously? Talk about Ebbsfleet’s development is as speculative as talk about Prince Harry’s marriage plans, and about as reliable.
And since no garden city has been built since the 1920s, some may conclude that there are good reasons why the concept has fallen into disuse.
The phrase ‘garden city’ might, to builders with moderately long memories, reawaken memories of former prime minister Gordon Brown’s attempt to get a series of ‘eco towns’ started six years ago. Most of these were rapidly abandoned in the face of public hostility and municipal indifference.
The new garden cities, we are told, would be stand-alone settlements with their own infrastructure, schools, hospitals and, as far as possible, local sources of employment, all of which would make them quite different from conventional urban extensions.
But where, other than Ebbsfleet, can anyone find sites of sufficient size: empty yet well-connected by road and rail; where existing residents will not object loudly?
Letchworth and Welwyn – the only two garden cities ever built – are low-density places of attractive homes set amid extensive greenery and generally considered rather pleasant places to live.
New garden cities would thus face the immediate problem of needing enormous amounts of empty land to achieve anything like these low densities.
The government’s sudden enthusiasm for garden cities can be seen as a way to win public support for house building in areas of housing pressure.
Could modern versions win public acceptance (and so avoid the aggravation of contested planning applications) where developers’ attempts to extend existing towns fall foul of local opposition?
The government’s prospectus nails its colours to the mast by calling for ‘locally-led garden cities’. In other words, it’s up to each locality to suggest garden city sites rather than have the government impose them.
The prospectus states: “Unlocking large scale housing developments is critical to driving the supply of new homes in the medium to long term. They can offer a more strategic and thoughtful alternative to sequential development (or ‘sprawl’) around existing communities.”
It continues: “Development at a large scale creates the opportunity to secure real and important benefits: attributes that people most value – such as quality design, gardens, accessible green space near homes, access to employment, and local amenities – can be designed in from the outset.
“In short, garden cities are about far more than houses alone: they are about creating sustainable, economically viable places where people choose to live.”
Ministers set out a series of principles for their development (see box p35) drawn up by the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA) – an organisation with its origins in the Victorian garden cities movement.
But there would have to be a body that could deliver such a large project over a long period, though the government has left open whether this would be a development corporation, as proposed for Ebbsfleet, or various public/private joint ventures and partnerships.
In return, any site chosen can expect government help with money and some rather unspecific things like ‘brokerage’ and ‘capacity support’.
What is missing is any new legal framework for garden cities. As it stands, it appears they would all have to go through the existing planning system, and as anyone who has grappled with that will realise all too well, an application for something as vast as 15,000 homes will be strewn with pitfalls. So, despite the Government’s enthusiasm, can anyone expect to see a garden city built other than at Ebbsfleet?
There would certainly be plenty of work were they to go ahead. Miles Gibson, director of the 2014 Wolfson Economics Prize – which offers £250,000 for the best paper explaining how garden cities could be developed - says: “At the proposed Ebbsfleet Garden City you could expect 30,000 construction jobs if the 15,000 homes ambition there is met.
“This is worked out using the government’s standard rule of thumb for calculating the number of construction jobs arising from new homes. You just double the number of homes to get the number of jobs. “Also of course there are construction jobs associated with the infrastructure and the shops, offices, etc, but it is more difficult to be certain about precise numbers.” Hugh Ellis, the TCPA’s policy director, thinks development corporations will be needed to deliver any garden cities. These would come armed with powers of land assembly, planning and compulsory purchase if necessary.
The original garden cities were all built to provide affordable housing but Ellis thinks a 60-70% proportion would now be more realistic, as would an expectation that most, though not all, residents would work in the immediate locality.
One point of controversy in the prospectus was that it said promoters of garden cities merely “may wish” to consider providing affordable homes.
Ellis says: “Creating mixed tenure homes, genuinely affordable housing for all budgets and a considerable level of homes for social rent constitute essential elements of the garden city principles.”
Garden cities would be paid for by development corporations owning the land and using the increase in its value to finance work.
Ellis explains: “The issue is the betterment in value between something that is agricultural land and something that gets planning permission for homes and is then worth millions.
“You can use that to repay debt for the development, which is how the new towns were built.
“Housebuilders normally use a very different model for speculative building but you would not have this here. They would simply be building houses as contractors for the corporations, as they do for social landlords. That means they would not have the profit from speculation but they would have certainty.”
Cathal Rock, who heads work on garden cities at the Department for Communities & Local Government, told a TCPA conference in May that the idea had evolved because “we face huge pressure with 221,000 new households every year to 2021 and we’re building 107,000 homes a year though starts are now 123,000 but that is an increase from a very low base.”
But he admitted the government knew of no similar project of such a scale in the UK and that the 30-40 year delivery period needs “very patient capital investors and will be a challenge for local authorities and housebuilders.”
A spokesman for the Home Builders Federation said: “We are in favour of garden cities so long as they mean an absolute increase in the number of new homes built and not just a different way of building the same number.
“We want to see what models are developed and one may be that house builders work as contractors where a development corporation owns and has assembled the land, since that is different from a house builder buying land and seeking planning permission.
“That would make perfect sense, but this is going to be long term and will need support.” The same TCPA conference though saw the veteran architect and planner David Rock suggest that a garden city’s prospects would be poor indeed if it had to go through the existing planning system without any new streamlined method being provided for it.
Christine de Ferrars Green, a lawyer with legal firm Mills & Reeve specialising in residential development, agrees: “I certainly think they will need a legislative framework to deliver something on the scale required and neither the government nor Labour seems to be thinking about a national strategy for garden cities or new legislation. “That means they would have to go through the normal planning system. The eco towns, with which I was involved, foundered on political unpopularity but also on the slowness of the planning process.”
She says one key problem would be finding a suitable site within the area of one local authority.
If it crossed boundaries, “you are into the duty to cooperate, which really doesn’t mean much except showing that councils talk to each other and there might be a lack of local political support.
“The planning system works well normally, but I wonder if garden cities may need their own system.”
England is littered with the corpses of eco towns and with an earlier generation of new towns, many of which are now widely considered object lessons in how not to design a new settlement.
Will this new round of garden cities fare better? It all depends on suitable sites existing and then attracting local support. So, while 30,000 construction jobs per project would be great for industry, perhaps it’s best not to bank on it.
[This article first appeared in the June 2014 issue of The Construction Index magazine, which can be viewed in full at: http://epublishing.theconstructionindex.co.uk/magazine/june2014/]
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