Opinion: Garden villages and garden towns are a new solution to an old problem

Government support for garden communities is good news, but it raises questions about vision and governance, writes Stephen Gleave.

The government’s announcement of a commitment to building quality new homes as a series of garden villages and garden towns is a very welcome start to the new year. However, the initiative needs substance and pace if it is to really impact on the scale and quality of housebuilding over the next decade and beyond.

First, putting my colours to the mast, I think this is a great opportunity. I’ve personally been involved in a number of the locations announced: the sites are well suited to development and the homes are long overdue.

In terms of housing numbers being delivered, this entire initiative might deliver around 200,000 homes. This represents less than one year’s supply of our national housing need. The sites have mostly been in the mix for some time and the funding support is nominal (less than £500,000 per village per annum for two years), so there is neither reason to rejoice or allow complacency.

We have had a growing national housing crisis year on year since the mid-1980s, compounded by a cessation of public sector housebuilding, failed initiatives in housing renewal, a mismatch between supply and tenure need, and of course geographical disparity in demand and values.

We have also had no new initiatives, since the abandonment of the new towns programme, to stimulate housebuilding on the scale required. Forward planning and plan making has not in itself promoted construction.

Land supply is a key factor, as is the ability of housebuilders to fund and construct the numbers of new homes and infrastructure required. There is no single magic solution.

A turning point

There is no doubt that in order to deliver the number of homes required across the UK, we will have to challenge conventional planning paradigms. Not only will we need to use brownfield land fully and build at higher densities in urban settings, including family homes, but we must also start to identify sites – including land in the green belt – where new settlements of scale can be built as a priority.

It is for this reason that I believe the new announcement will be remembered. It represents a turning point in the view that the green belt, and associated metropolitan open land, established in post-war planning statutes has had a good run, but now needs an overhaul. Being really optimistic, there is a line in the sand at the start of 2017 that says we should now get on with the challenge and deliver.

Reviewing plans around the country, there is certainly mounting recognition from politicians, advisors and developers that the answer to housing supply means building on land where there hasn’t been previous development.

The challenge, of course, is persuading those who live close by and those who have invested in these locations that their personal interests should be ‘outweighed’ or overridden by a much less well defined national ‘public interest’.

We have to do this alongside a continuing ambition for greater localism and engagement in plan making.

For me there are four questions:

  • What will the diversity of land uses/activities in the new settlements be?
  • How and when will the public infrastructure be put in place to support the housebuilding components, including schools, open spaces, health and other community resources?
  • How do we ensure a level of exceptional quality of placemaking through building, landscape and spatial design?
  • How do we transition from concept and inception to delivery and then democratic governance?

Developing responses

Clearly, all new housing should be intrinsically sustainable, as well as contributing to wider settlement planning. In the English context, no single place can expect to be self-sustaining without mixed uses and flexibility towards introducing alternative and complementary activities. Opportunities for employment, leisure and recreation are key components. We need to see these as integral to proposals coming forward, not optional.

What must not be considered secondary are appropriate education, health and community facilities, as well as movement systems and public open spaces. These must function, bring structure, offer delight and be managed and maintained in perpetuity. We need to see these proposals with each project.

Regarding the urban design objectives and physical design quality, the mechanics and tools are well established: masterplans, design frameworks, site briefs, design codes and importantly, design review.

In all of this, the need for engagement across partners and interests is essential – not as a one-off initiative but as an ongoing part of the design process. The need for an overarching masterplan is very important, showing a complete response to context.

Balancing this with ambitions to introduce modern methods of construction and building efficiencies will bring further challenges. The character of these new villages and towns needs to be driven by the character of the place where they are being built, drawing on nature, site topography and a vision that the people involved should establish. Governance is something these government-backed garden village and garden town settlements really ought to address.

The communities now are not those of the future. Delivery is not through a single partner, either landowner or builder. Partners will change. The public sector ‘control’ over planning does not afford the level of ‘vision’ demanded in envisioning the future on this scale. So for me this is a major part of the jigsaw that has to be resolved early. The delivery model needs to embrace public and private sectors and broader community interest. Existing local political structures are unlikely to deliver.  

To conclude, this is a major commitment and undertaking. It’s fantastic news that progress is being made. Like many, I am keen to see progress and to learn. We need to hear more about how the government and individual garden village promoters will share their work, their collective knowledge and experiences. It would be great to have an online resource at least to share plans and prospectuses. It would also be helpful to see the rationale for the selection explained as a learning platform. It will be fascinating to see how each lead public sector partner is proposing to manage delivery.

While it will be essential to have local relevance, there is surely a case for offering each initiative a delivery model that combines vision and accountability. In the past it was explicit in new town development corporations and urban development corporations. Why should there not be a single garden village development corporation operating across England with locally time-limited delivery companies? The legislation may still be in place to establish such an agency and with the Homes and Communities Agency’s Tailored Review conclusions published last November, maybe there is a chance.

Stephen Gleave is a senior director at planning and design consultancy, Turley, with responsibility for the company's placemaking agenda. 


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