Garden Cities: What can we learn from eco-towns and growth points?

Garden cities are essential to tackle the housing crisis but previous lessons in large scale housing developments need to be learnt, argues Henry Cleary.

New homes: local legitimacy is key
New homes: local legitimacy is key

It is good to see Garden Cities (aka new settlements) generating political interest. We have no hope of addressing the housing supply shortage without them but the machinery needs updating to be a serious runner in today's world.

Wolfson and Lyons allow us to have a robust discussion on how to do that, including learning from the recent past.

In the decade before localism (2001-2011) there were 3 major policies to try to pull in large scale housing growth; the 4 growth areas of 2003 were an ambitious way of supporting and funding growth but handled as add-ons to the existing regional strategy process; the Growth Point initiative of 2006 (in many ways an unsung hero) was competitive, inviting local authorities to propose at least 20 per cent additional housing beyond existing plans as part of a wider growth strategy in exchange for Government help on infrastructure (particularly transport) and modest grant to prepare infrastructure and community facilities. 

Phase 1 of the scheme included 29 growth points involving 70 LAs and some are still very effectively using the structures and the name.  

Eco-towns by contrast invited specific site proposals for new communities and mainly attracted the private sector.

The concept was environmentally ambitious and attracted some highly original thinking on design and infrastructure but promotion of the scheme nationally relied on its climate change and innovation benefits together with housing need.

The major area of weakness was in local negotiation and legitimacy. Ultimately the 4 schemes given a degree of planning support in the PPS were all supported by their local authorities, but other promoters felt let down.

This looked very different to the early pitch of a scheme seen as highly interventionist, and after an intense and high profile process which got changed along the way. Taking a consistent line will be key for any successor.

Going forward, we can draw 5 key pointers from this experience:

(i)    Define the areas where the scheme could run with clear criteria such as the highest housing affordability pressure and lack of major environmental etc constraints – essential to transcend Party political issues on location;

(ii)    Ensure a robust local debate which is seen to give people a choice within the housing need context. Those with a reasonable alternative to the proposed new community should be resourced to put that forward (on a sound basis - for example, if a brownfield alternative, identifying the funding and market to make it viable). That allows closing off the "no to anything" option – and means the housing uplift has to be addressed. Several local authorities created successful alternative options as part of the eco-towns competition and the referendum idea in Wolfson is in this territory.

(iii)    Government must offer infrastructure brokerage, particularly on transport. The "show-stopper review", first introduced for growth points,  tells promoters and LAs early on if they face a likely veto because trunk road or rail access and capacity or environmental issues can’t be resolved at reasonable cost – ultimately a cause of death for several eco-town proposals. And a kick start is needed in local transport resource divvy up – a new location with few existing people will not be high on any current list;

(iv)    Relate the project to real local economic priorities. The growth points scheme positioned additional housing as part of a wider locally owned economic strategy identifying jobs and related priorities (eg education). Successful eco-town schemes have launched "early win" projects to create real benefits for existing residents and link into existing town centre issues;

(v)    Exploit existing planning tools such as LDOs to help de-risk the project but ensure they are well understood before use. The planning system already offers a diverse range of tools but they need to be worked through with local partners and debated/modified and resourced to suit.

The challenge now is to marry the innovation and design skills of the private sector and the energy of a competition with creating effective engagement locally.

Localism has brought housing need pressures up the agenda – pressured authorities struggling to identify supply might willingly consider a new settlement project as an alternative to alienating dozens of existing communities.

Operating at community scale offers an opportunity to provide not only housing but energy and many other services differently – a new way of living, in itself a major economic gain.

But however brave the launch, and however noble the concept, a Garden City or new settlement scheme is unlikely to happen without a delivery route that has local legitimacy.

Henry Cleary is an advisor on housing growth and was previously head of DCLG's Growth Areas Division from 2001 to 2011.

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