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Planting the seeds for real Garden Cities

Photo of Station Road, Letchworth Garden City taken in 1910 Photo of Station Road, Letchworth Garden City taken in 1910 Photo: © The JR James Archive

A recent report in The Planner says that planners believe "there is little clarity on whether locally-led (Garden City) solutions will deliver the houses required to meet the national shortage".

Wrong. There is absolute clarity. matt thomson blogWhether locally-led or not, Garden Cities, will make next to no difference to meeting housing need.

There appears to be cross-party support for constructing Garden Cities to help meet housing need, although little actual detail in the manifestos of what, exactly, a Garden City is. Judging by the types of developments that housebuilders currently label as 'Garden Cities', 'Garden Suburbs' and 'Garden Villages', unless someone makes a clear statement defining what a Garden City is soon, we will just have to live with them being anonymous, soul-less, land-hungry housing estates.

Ebenezer Howard, the visionary gentleman who invented the term in 1898, would be rolling in his grave.

This is why CPRE is engaging with the New Garden Cities Alliance, who are defining a consensus around what it means to be a Garden City and creating an accreditation scheme to ensure that the Garden City brand isn't brought into disrepute.

There are some definitions of what it means to be a Garden City out there. The Town and Country Planning Association - the social justice and planning think-tank that evolved from Howard's own Garden Cities Association - enjoy the benefit of their Garden City Principles having some official recognition in the Department for Communities and Local Government's Locally-Led Garden Cities Prospectus. The New Garden Cities Alliance advocates (for discussion) twelve principles for the governance of Garden Cities, penned by a former mayor of Letchworth - the world's first Garden City - and a renowned university professor.

CPRE concurs with the spirit of both these sets of principles, but caution that Garden Cities do not need to be new towns, and do not need to be built on greenfield land. Thought needs to be given in any Garden City principles to what these places will look like, and in particular how they should respond to the need responsibly to manage the use of land in our increasingly crowded small island. This is an issue that is as pressing as the housing crisis, if not more so, since there are many options available in terms of how we meet housing need but few alternatives for how we use land sustainably.

Since garden cities should aspire to be largely self-contained and attractive to new investors and new employers, they can be seen as a means of facilitating the renewal of areas despoiled by former industrial activity. A sensible person might argue that Garden Cities should be seen less as a solution to the housing crisis, and more as a tool for regeneration and for spatially rebalancing the economy.

The most ambitious manifesto commitment to Garden Cities suggests up to 10 of them across the UK. Howard envisaged that Garden Cities would accommodate around 32,000 people - which in today's money is about 12,500 homes - with the occasional larger 'central' Garden City of about 50-60,000 people (24,000 homes). Ten almost certainly highly controversial Garden Cities would give us an absolute maximum of 240,000 new homes across the UK, probably taking decades to deliver. But these would meet less than a single year's housing need in most people's estimation. Despite the attention paid to them in the manifestos and in the media, Garden Cities are not, in themselves, a panacea for addressing the housing crisis. But it does give politicians something to talk about that makes them sound like they are taking the housing crisis seriously.

The way to work quickly to begin to resolve the housing crisis in the short term is to put more effort into immediately regenerating for housing and other uses those brownfield sites that do not provide beneficial opportunities for biodiversity or recreation. Many of these sites blight our urban areas with their ugliness and suck the life out of communities and the local economy. And this isn't just about ensuring such sites benefit from planning permission (or a local development order), which has been the focus of the 2010-15 government, but on giving communities better powers to deliver development by acquiring land and/or by penalising landowners that despoil the land with pollution or who fail to get a move on with regenerating their sites.

Our research has shown that there are sufficient brownfield sites locally identified as suitable for housing development that could, in the short term, provide almost 1 million new homes - 4 years' worth of national housing need - and that new brownfield sites are continuously being identified.

The next step for Garden Cities should be to consider how the Garden City principles might be applied to help with the regeneration of these sites, rather than the vague possibility of sprawling 'Garden Suburbs' or the sporadic development of new towns in our precious countryside.

Find out more

Read the Garden city proposals ‘lack clarity’ article on The Planner website

View Matt's profile


Garden Cities should be seen less as a solution to the housing crisis, and more as a tool for regeneration and for spatially rebalancing the economy

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