The government has held back from being too prescriptive about what constitutes a garden village, but key principles of character, lifestyle and legacy underpin the best of them

Chris Tinker

What are the defining characteristics of a “garden village”? In its prospectus calling for the identification of potential garden villages, the government was careful not to elaborate too far on the underlying principles which it believed should underlie each development. As a result the 14 garden villages selected in the first round are quite different in scale and nature. However, they all share the same softer rhetoric associated with the garden city movement of the 19th century which suggests they will all aim to deliver high-quality, sustainable new communities.

This approach allows developers to be flexible, responding to local circumstances rather than being driven by an over prescriptive standard or template. However, to avoid the inevitable backlash against the creation of soulless housing estates, which developed against the previous eco-town initiative, it is important from the outset that the industry identify some key principles which should characterise and underpin the very best of garden villages.

At Crest Nicholson we have worked for the last six years with Kate Henderson and her team at the Town and Country Planning Association to champion developments which embody garden village principles. During this time we have built on our own approach to large-scale housing sites and now have several garden villages in delivery which have helped us to understand how these developments differentiate themselves from some of our other high-quality housing-led schemes. These principles can be categorised into three key areas; character, lifestyle and legacy.

Garden villages are undoubtedly greener places than many contemporary housing sites. This means that it would be rare for the net developable area to be more than 40% to 45% of the gross site area. While challenging to viability (normal housing sites would typically have 50% to 60% development coverage with the attendant increased land value this brings), this creates space for nature parks, woodlands and other open areas, and gives a greater sense of space to boulevards and streets. Allotments, play spaces and enhanced sports areas all add to amenity and a sense of community.

Strict design codes are also used to help create a unified approach to street scenes, boundary conditions, material choices and so on. Separate areas of traditional, arts and crafts and contemporary housing are used to create distinct residential quarters each of which has a complementary mix of tenures and densities.

For developments unable to support a significant level of job creation, the early provision of transport links to active centres of employment becomes a necessary requirement if the new community is to be able to make sustainable life choices

A development’s character can be make or break when it comes to working with existing communities. Developers must create a local vision that complements the surrounding area to avoid the protracted delays inherent in many previous similar sized but less principled initiatives.

Garden village sites are designed to be delivered at pace with several developers working in tandem to deliver to a unified design. Early delivery of key social and physical infrastructure is vital. For example, at our Tadpole Garden Village in Swindon, our onsite primary school was open before the occupation of the 150th dwelling; while on Arborfield Garden Village, the Bohunt secondary school opened in the first year of occupations and will anchor a new district centre.

The scale of retail and commercial development will be also highly variable. A 1,500 dwellings scheme in isolation will only support a small local centre, whereas at our Longcross site, one of the government’s newly supported garden villages, owned jointly by Crest Nicholson and Aviva, the developments offer significant and planned infrastructure and offer the prospect for up to 5,000 jobs. This is large enough to create a truly mixed-use, sustainable community. For developments unable to support a significant level of job creation, the early provision of transport links from the site to active centres of employment becomes an essential requirement to create a workable community.

Perhaps the greatest defining characteristic of a garden village is the way the development deals with community. The legacy and lifestyle elements are anchored in the creation of a Community Interest Company (CIC). The CIC becomes the guardian of the future community. All residents and associated stakeholders are members. New community assets are created in conjunction with the CIC and then transferred to the CIC to help pump-prime an affordable legacy. At Tadpole Garden Village, for example, the CIC will be gifted retail units and other revenue-generating leisure facilities to help to create a sustainable legacy cost as well as a sense of purpose and control for the new community.

To deliver a development which embodies these principles takes a lot of skill and dedication. However, the results can be rewarding for a dedicated developer, with delivery rates and sales values well above the norm.

It will be interesting to see how many of the new garden villages embody these core principles and to see whether they can create a local vision which gains early acceptance within the existing communities to avoid the protracted delays inherent in many previous similar sized but less principled developments.

Chris Tinker is executive board director and regeneration chairman at Crest Nicholson