Architects reject government plans for garden cities
Architects have hit out at emerging government plans for a fresh wave of garden cities, warning new development should focus on existing brownfield sites
Following weeks of speculation, communities secretary Eric Pickles admitted on Sunday (19 January) that the government may build ‘a garden city or two’ – where there is local support.
But the news has been met with scepticism by the profession, with many claiming a return to Ebenezer Howard-style, self-contained communities surrounded by green belt was ‘outdated’ and would not help tackle the huge housing shortage.
Stride Treglown’s Dominic Eaton said: ‘The whole garden city idea is very emotive, promising leafy suburbs and a quality of life of a bygone age that is not relevant to the way we live today. If [these proposals] involve the use of green belt I would be absolutely opposed to the idea.’
Peter Morris of Peter Morris Architects agreed: ‘There is another word for garden cities and that is urban sprawl, which results in more pollution. We don’t need to build new suburbs, we need to fix what we already have by increasing density in areas that already have the infrastructure.’
Chris Brown of Igloo Regeneration added: ‘Garden cities will do nothing for the housing crisis. They are unlikely to deliver significant numbers of homes within the next 10 years.
He continued: ‘There is a huge potential in London that can deliver faster than a green belt new town. Croydon, Thames Gateway, Old Oak Common all have significant housing capacity and infrastructure already in place or planned.’
Plans for 10 ‘eco-towns’ – launched by the former Labour government – were officially abandoned three years ago when the coalition government announced only North West Bicester in Oxfordshire would be built to the exacting zero-carbon standards.
Pickles’ surprise confession came after Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister Nick Clegg increased pressure on the government to publish a garden city prospectus, which has allegedly been suppressed over fears it could upset Tory voters.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph at the weekend, he called for an end to ‘partisan politics’ and said: ‘We should bite the bullet and create garden towns… We must also be honest and up front about where they will be.’ (See comment below)
The newspaper reports that the unpublished prospectus earmarks Yalding near Maidstone in Kent and Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire as potential sites.
However, during a week of turmoil for the Lib Dems, it emerged even fellow party member and former communities under secretary Andrew Stunnell was against the garden cities idea.
He told the AJ: ‘The problem with garden cities in the 21st century is how you can deliver them. If you want more homes – and we need more homes – the only way to guarantee them is to have state investment.’
London’s Conservative mayor Boris Johnson also dismissed the ‘Cleggopolises’ vision, suggesting a new airport east of the capital would allow thousands of homes to be built at Heathrow instead.
Despite the criticism of garden city plans, the government has been very open about its financial support for almost 70,000 new homes in smaller, garden city-style urban extensions across the south of England.
Among them is the 5,500-home scheme masterplanned by the Princes Foundation at Sherford near Plymouth (pictured), which netted £32 million from the Homes and Communities Agency and will be delivered by Taylor Wimpey, Linden and Bovis.
Furthermore, amid renewed debate over the new settlement’s deliverability, Conservative peer Simon Wolfson will award this year’s £250,000 Wolfson Prize to a 10,000-word essay answering: ‘How would you deliver a new garden city which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?’
Rising to the challenge, Bob Allies of Allies and Morrison said all-encompassing garden city masterplans should be abandoned in favour of open-ended strategies shaped over a longer period of time.
He said: ‘We shouldn’t set out to replicate the models from the past. [We need] new sorts of places – more concentrated, more diverse, easier to access and use.’
Andrew Jones, managing director for EMEA design planning and economics at AECOM, warned against pushing ahead with isolated plans for new settlements.
He said: ‘We need a strategic plan for growth; a new Abercrombie plan – an aspirational, but grounded manifesto for the future of the London region. The scale and urgency of projected demand calls for much more than bringing forward proposals for a couple of garden cities.’
RIBA head of external affairs Anna Scott Marshall agreed: ‘Any new settlements should have strategic importance within the wider metropolitan area, and provide access to local jobs and comprehensive public transport infrastructure.’
The original garden cities protected buyers from full development costs by placing shared assets in a trust, explained Design for Homes chief executive David Birkbeck.
He said: ‘If the garden city bids can again allow people to buy homes at prices below what they would expect to pay, they have a fighting chance of splitting the nimby vote, provided locals are first in the queue for homes.’
For this to work, low land values would be crucial, he said, ruling out districts such as Gerrards Cross.
Designer Wayne Hemingway added: ‘It cannot be done without housebuilders, nor can it be delivered with just the same crop of UK housebuilders, and it needs a strong vision that is not just about shareholder value. It’s about communal value; it would need institutional investment like East Village on the Olympic Park.’
Land for up to 100,000 new homes is set to be released before next spring as part of the coalition’s local infrastructure plan for housing.
Boris Johnson, mayor of London (writing in The Daily Telegraph)
There is no need to impose a series of new cities on the lush fields of the South East. It is far too early to start a war – and it will be a vicious and protracted war – with the green-wellied swampies of the home counties.
Much of the UK’s population growth can be attributed to the dynamism of London, where we have an ever-growing life expectancy and more live births.
There are at least 33 brownfield opportunity areas in London, and many of them are, of course, to the east – the scene of post-industrial decline that followed the loss of the docks and much manufacturing industry.
There is still a huge zone of post-industrial land that has proved impossible to shift, and where development has never been viable. That area would be transformed, of course, by the addition of one obvious motor of economic growth: a new airport and logistics hub in the estuary.
At a stroke you would transform the economics of building on the brownfield sites in the Thames Gateway. You would turn the east of London into an economic dynamo – as it once was – and no, you would not decimate west London.
You would also release a suburban area now occupied by [Heathrow Airport] – and you would have space to accommodate 200,000 people, as well as university campuses and hi-tech industry.
That is where you build the garden city, with an Aerotropolis on the brownfield sites to the east. You would have regeneration in east and west; you would solve the housing crisis.
Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader
Britain is suffering from a chronic lack of housing. A steady stream of governments over many decades has failed to deal with the problem and, as each day passes, the problem gets worse.
That is why I am a strong advocate of garden cities, where there is clear local support and private sector appetite. In 2011, our housing strategy committed us to publishing a prospectus for new garden cities and that is exactly what we will do.
Bloated towns and cities are being forced to expand further bit by bit
Bloated towns and cities are being forced to expand further bit by bit, and the green belt is being eaten away. We must stop the piecemeal infill and bring an end to the controversy about developments that sprawl out from already established areas.
Garden cities are a way of protecting the countryside. It is possible to create them without building on any green belt, national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty. And by doing it we could deliver homes people can afford in places they want to live.
We must also be honest and up front about where they will be. There is no point in hiding from this: there is an arc around the South East of England where demand is past breaking point.
Where there is more work and more demand, we should bite the bullet and create garden towns and garden cities. If you look at places like Welwyn Garden City and Milton Keynes, these are places where planned communities can thrive.
Robert Guy of Arturus Architects
It seems to me they are equating ‘garden’ with ‘green’ in an attempt to make it sound different to building the equivalent of Milton Keynes. We do need new cities and increased density in our existing ones- just how do people think we are to accommodate the additional 400k or so of population increase per annum which is predicted for the next 20 years. That is a city of about the size as Bristol every year! 1 or 2 ‘garden cities’ is just not enough and will not make much difference to anything other than the voters where it is planned- who will naturally be against it.
Benjamin Derbyshire, managing partner at HTA
Ed Balls is on the stump making speeches about how a Labour Treasury would put housing supply at the heart of its policy and a Labour government would set up New Town Development Corporations with the ability to plough back the added value of surrounding land they consume. Meanwhile the Wolfson Foundation’s competition attempts to breathe life into the various failed Tory attempts to float eco towns and the like. Now Nick Clegg has increased pressure on the government to announce a new wave of garden cities.
The problem with all of these initiatives is the inevitable fire storm of protest anywhere south of a line between Liverpool and Hull that accompanies any attempt to designate the areas where homes are to be built. Localism has brought us new lows of confusion wrought by politicians, best illustrated perhaps by the grotesque of housing minister Grant Shapps seeing off urban extensions in his new town constituency of Welwyn and Hatfield – towns that did not even exist a century ago.
Before we rely on shiny new Garden Cities to save the day we should look at what worked well in the past
So before we come to rely too heavily on shiny new garden cities to save the day, it may be worth recycling the experience of what has worked well in the past to deliver housing supply. I can think of no better example than that described at a recent Housing Forum seminar ‘The ABC of Housing Growth’ and Infrastructure’ by Peter Studdert in his long association with the process of planning the addition of a further 30,000 new homes to fuel the expansion of Cambridge over a period of 20 years.
Martin Sagar, partner at Sheppard Robson
These plans show a poor understanding of the relationship between transport, infrastructure and the socio economic drivers of development. It seems to me that the garden city was an idea of a very particular time, and most importantly one which was intrinsically linked with the occupation of those that lived there. The artisan craftsman was the model citizen for the model city. This notion implied that its citizens either were not or did not need to be mobile beyond the boundary of the city. This is patently not the case for the citizens of these new cities which have been discussed.
The considered reuse of the patchwork of unused property over shops, the still sticky back lands of London and Landlocked patches of grime cry out for political assistance to enable them to be put to good use near as they are to transport, communication and utility provision. The new city is a simple politicians flag waving exercise compared to this more useful and intelligent strategy. In any case it beats me how they imagine it will win votes in the Tory homelands.
Lee Davies, director at Conran and Partners
If you look at developments such as Futako Tamagawa in Tokyo, and the work that has been done to regenerate Stratford through the Olympics, complete new city districts are being created, working with the infrastructure that exists there. These are joined-up urban planning and regeneration schemes that offer less of a risk and there are sites for redevelopment that can be readily identified in towns and cities across the UK. The result would be vibrant new communities.
There has to be a reason for people to live in a new community
Building around existing infrastructure is key: utilising and enhancing rail and road networks is sensible and cost-effective. Employment and sense of place is also vitally important. There has to be a reason for people to live in a new community. Garden cities were created to house workers. For instance, Letchworth slowly attracted residents because it was able to bring in manufacturers through business incentives such as low rents.
And both Welwyn and Letchworth rely on their proximity to London to attract people there. Garden cities and new towns can be successful; the experience of Milton Keynes shows that to be the case. However they take time to plan and model and that investment can possibly be used more wisely and with less risk. Urban planning is a complex issue. Utilising and building on the infrastructure that already exists in our cities, sites that can be identified offer a more tangible solution to generating new homes.
Elena Tsolakis of Kyriakos Tsolakis Architects
The point is that the housing problem is real, its growing and we need to be taking positive action to solve it. All we have heard is a lot of talk about housing and no action from government. Obviously beyond solving the housing problem it’s a great opportunity to create jobs and of course it has great opportunity for creative thinking through integrated design. As architects we need to be offering options for the best models that new settlements take. I don’t think it’s one or the other, the problem is too large for one to solve it, we need to be doing both regenerating brown field sites in the inner city as well as working on possible proposals for new garden cities. We have examples of garden cities not doing so well and others thriving, so it isn’t something an easy solution to the housing problem, it needs to be pushed forward with care.
Simon Wolfson, Conservative peer
The prize is looking for a garden city proposal which is visionary, economically viable, and popular. We’re looking for ideas for great places to live, which capitalise on the opportunities presented by building afresh, and which offer a high quality of life. But it’s really for entrants to define a garden city themselves in their entries. It is fundamentally their own definition and vision that will be compelling to the judges. Architects know how to make great places, so I would encourage them to enter and contribute their ideas.
Miles Gibson, prize director of the Wolfson Economics Prize 2014
Garden cities have been a credible solution to the nation’s housing problems before, and they could be again
Garden cities have been a credible solution to the nation’s housing problems before, and they could be again. We’re looking for entries which build confidence in this potential solution and inspire us to something better. Whatever additional housing we manage to achieve in existing urban areas, the assumption behind the prize question is that it won’t be enough.
Roger FitzGerald, chair ADP
Garden cities were a brilliant idea of their time, but now we need to maintain and reinforce the differences between town and country. Otherwise, we will end up with endless suburbia that fails to offer the best of either.
The key is fast and reliable public transport. We should maximise development around existing transport hubs, and look to develop much faster links into central London from further afield.
Gerry Hughes, national head of planning, development and regeneration GVA
Ideally garden cities should ultimately be self -funding. That means funding infrastructure through the development process, including the uplift in land value and from the tax revenues a new city would generate, for example business rates. However we require more creative thought around this issue. It requires a degree of financial innovation to harness value created, as it is very unlikely we will ever see the previous new town investment model of heavy public sector funding being made available.
One of the biggest issues is cash flow for example- how does one fund the early high infrastructure costs, ahead of income from sales? This may require government guarantees to entice private sector investment. It is all very well L and G announcing a £5bn fund for new garden cities, but they are not going to build them in reality. What they are saying is this money could be available if the terms and risk profile is right. That may require a guarantee from government in some way.
Paul Clark, director of development consultancy and agency at Capita
For garden cities to be sustainable and effective solutions they will need to attract employers and deliver a critical mass of public services to early residents. Old documentaries of the time show how difficult the early movers found life in the last generation of new towns and a lot of thought needs to be given to solving these issues. I suggest thinking about them as ‘Garden Villages’ to start, with a plan for organic growth over time.
Also, we will need very committed leadership to drive these programmes. We need leadership that is willing to properly balance the needs of the future against the most vocal concerns from the present. I question where this will come from. Can we create a Minister for the garden villages?
Barry Munday, chair at The Housing Forum
The idea of brand new garden cities sounds more voter friendly than eco-towns but the reality is that as soon as you move on from the concept to reality, all the same difficulties of local opposition present themselves. I would prefer the route outlined in our ABC report whereby existing areas which are capable of growth and have good connectivity become the focus of new housing growth. The example of Cambridge is a good one.
Also, the existing garden cities and also the new towns have in many cases failed to re-invent themselves and are now rather sad places. I spent some time looking at Harlow with Nick Falk, David Taylor and Stephen Hill. The town badly needs a makeover but is frozen in aspic because locals don’t really want to change the original concept. As we learned from Kidbrooke, masterplans need to be flexible enough to accept change but I am not sure the garden cities were. There was also a large planned expansion on the north side of Harlow which has stalled because of inter-local authority friction and lack of funding for a new connection to the M11. So all in all, lets sort out some of our existing problems before we dive into creating new ones.
There are plenty of places where new infrastructure will create opportunity such as Old Oak Common and HS2. These can be at much higher density than garden cities which would actually be land hungry and take up more of the countryside than dense urban extensions. One idea we tried to promote when I was chair of the HF was to carry out a proper inventory of land potentially available for development when you exclude everything which is protected in some way.
A kind of modern Domesday Book. Once you know that you could overlay it with population and movement patterns to decide where to build. Surely a better approach than letting landowners and developers make the running through promoting sites on their own. Unfortunately this kind of centralised planning is temporarily off the agenda but I am sure it will return.
Simon Henley of Henley Halebrown Rorrison
Like all settlements the new garden cities need two things: an extraordinary site and a very particular story – a kind of synthetic history - that defines their make-up. Curious though this suggestion may seem they would then be garden cities not suburbs. This is not just about housing.
John Watson, head of planning at Scott Brownrigg Planning
Nick Clegg is right. The scale of the national housing shortage is such that a programme of new settlements must be part of the solution. The figures are becoming familiar: new households are forming at a rate of 230,000 per year and are projected to carry on at this rate for the next 20 years, yet we are building less than half this amount.
The scale of the national housing shortage means new settlements must be part of the solution
Add to this a backlog of 2-3 million and we have a monumental problem. Of course, best use must be made to regenerate brownfield land but there is only so much that can be crammed into existing towns and cities. Piecemeal sprawl into the countryside has its limits and is literally tinkering around the edges of the problem. A national programme of new settlements is the only way we will come near to meeting the figures - and the garden city model provides a template for creating truly sustainable living.
Our garden cities, in this country and abroad, demonstrate that we can combine the best of town and country living where a beautiful, healthy environment is part of daily life. What’s more, through reinvesting the increase in land values back into the town, this can be achieved at no cost to the public purse. Everyone’s a winner. But such is the scale of land assembly and infrastructure provision required to create new settlements with the necessary critical mass of 30,000-40,000 population, there must be state intervention. Land must be acquired and development corporations established - then our architects, masterplanners, town planners and engineers can be unleashed to create sustainable, beautiful places - and a quality of life which is but a dream for millions of people.