Stretching the city: how to build a new garden city

David Rudlin's vision for expanding existing towns delighted the Wolfson prize judges, but infuriated ministers. So what exactly did it propose, asks John Geoghegan?

The winning Uxcester new town proposal, in which a garden city grows up around an existing settlement
The winning Uxcester new town proposal, in which a garden city grows up around an existing settlement

Having garden cities as the subject for a major national economics competition run by a Tory peer has focused attention on planning and the housing shortage. Lord Wolfson's economics prize was this year awarded to the best idea for a visionary, popular and economically viable garden city. The £250,000 prize went to planner David Rudlin, director of regeneration consultancy URBED, and his colleague Dr Nicholas Falk, an urban economist.

Unlike most of the finalists, three of whom advocate stand-alone settlements, the winning entry does not propose a conventional garden city. The URBED entry instead argues for the expansion of existing settlements to double their size. A fictional town called Uxcester is used to show how this would work, increasing its population by 150,000 with the creation of three urban extensions.

While for illustrative purposes Falk applies the ideas in detail to Oxford, the essay suggests the model could also be used to expand up to 40 towns and cities across the country, including Norwich and Reading.

Rudlin asks why the UK no longer produces developments of the quality found on the continent. He argues that the UK housing market is dysfunctional, creating the priciest but also the smallest homes in Europe, often of poor quality. The "fundamental issue" is land value, he writes, which rises hugely when allocated or granted permission for housing, and makes up most of the cost for developers. Speaking to Planning, Rudlin says: "When permission is granted, the developer puts all the money into the land, and there is nothing left to build the sorts of places we admire in Germany and the Netherlands."

Rudlin then explains why he thinks urban extensions, rather than completely new settlements, are the answer. "You cannot build a garden city from scratch - the problems are insuperable," he concludes. The "fundamental problem", he writes, is that the key infrastructure and facilities of a city, such as a hospital, university and cultural offers, cannot be funded by the value generated from building new homes, business premises and utilities. Successful places require the "creative class" - well-qualified young people attracted by lifestyle and jobs. A freestanding settlement would take "decades" to develop this offer, he says, whereas a mature town already has such facilities and a "thriving town centre". A garden city should grow, he writes, as part of an established city.

Rudlin explains how the population of "Uxcester", a historic city with just under 200,000 people occupying about 85,000 homes, could be roughly doubled over 30 years. But it is surrounded by green belt, so, rather than "nibbling around (its) edges", Rudlin suggests taking a "large and confident bite" from it. While some of the 86,000 new homes could be built on urban brownfield land, the essay calculates that 70,000 would have to be built elsewhere. It is this aspect of the model that prompted planning minister Brandon Lewis to call the proposal "a recipe for unwanted urban sprawl" (Planning, 12 September, p4).

Rudlin argues for growing the town in a snowflake pattern, based on the social city model of the garden city movement's founder Ebenezer Howard. The snowflake involves three urban extensions, called garden neighbourhoods, connected to the original town (see diagram, right), each providing about 23,000 homes for 50,000 people. A fifth of the new homes would be affordable or social housing. Each extension would be linked to the city centre by a tram or bus rapid transit system and include schools, employment space, services and shops.

But given that local opposition is a major barrier to development, how can a garden city win the support of the existing population? Firstly, Rudlin and Falk argue, focusing on a small number of large developments arouses less opposition than spreading new homes to the edge of every town and village. The essay also suggests a six-point "social contract" to pacify objectors. Key points include providing an acre of publicly accessible green space for every acre of green belt developed, minimising environmental impact by avoiding flood plains and improving local infrastructure through a new tram system.

The contract would also increase housing affordability for people priced out of the town and compensate those directly affected, whose property needs to be purchased. Key to securing local support and leadership, Rudlin concludes, is ensuring that garden cities are not imposed from above by the government, so local areas should bid for garden city status.

The "fundamental issue of land" is addressed in the third part of the essay, which shows how the garden city would develop in seven stages. It calls on the government to prevent spiralling land prices and introduce a process by which "scores" of places can use the model. A "Garden City Act" should "create a legislative framework for the compulsory acquisition of land and the compensation arrangements". This would allow land to be bought at its pre-permission price and the owner compensated.

The act would also establish a bidding process in which consortia of local authorities would participate. Councils would be required to plan for long-term housing growth, with garden city status being one option open to them. Successful bidders would then be able to create bodies akin to development corporations, called Garden City Foundations, with planning and compulsory purchase powers.

With these powers, the foundation would have its own planning committee and lead the preparation of a non-statutory garden city masterplan, to be approved by constituent local authorities. The foundation would also have power to buy land to create new settlements. Once established, it could capture the uplift in land prices to finance infrastructure.

In an appendix, Falk describes how he and Rudlin applied the Uxcester model to Oxford. The essay concludes: "Uxcester has the potential to create a replicable model for building garden cities in the UK on a scale that could make a significant contribution to the UK's housing needs."

Common themes of the Finalists' entries

1. Winning local support - URBED and architectural consultancy Wei Yang Partners propose that local authorities come together to bid for garden cities. Both housing charity Shelter and Chris Blundell, director of regeneration at Golding Homes, suggest a council-wide referendum before the process begins, while URBED proposes a six-point social contract with residents. Four finalists agree that residents affected by development should be compensated. Shelter also proposes residents be involved in the garden city's masterplan. Consultancy Barton Willmore says that in areas suitable for garden cities, there should be elected garden city mayors to champion new settlements.

2. Using development corporations - Apart from Shelter's entry, all the finalists propose that some kind of development corporation with planning and land assembly powers would ensure development. Blundell and Wei Yang call for the use of the New Towns Act to create such bodes, while Barton Willmore suggests an amended version of the act to create "garden city commissions", or in URBED's words, "foundations".

3. A degree of government involvement - Barton Willmore's entry calls for a national spatial plan to determine "broad areas" for garden cities. Blundell and URBED say there should be new legislation to establish the garden city delivery process.

4. Land value capture - Four finalists propose to capture the land value uplift for public benefit, such as paying for the scheme's infrastructure. Land value capture is one of the key garden city principles, first proposed by Ebenezer Howard 100 years ago.

5. Using existing planning tools - Blundell and Barton Willmore suggest that garden cities, if supported in a local referendum, would take the fast track through the major infrastructure planning process and be determined by the Planning Inspectorate, under the Planning Act 2008. Shelter's entry proposes that a positive referendum result in the Medway area would "trigger" local development orders, which pre-grant permission for relevant sites.

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