The government still seems keen to invoke the garden city movement of the past to provide much-needed housing. Planning and innovation will be key to deliver high-quality results

Chris Tinker

For many years the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) has been lobbying successive governments to champion the promotion and delivery of large-scale garden cities as part of a holistic response to solving the UK housing supply crisis. The previous coalition government brought forward a prospectus encouraging potential garden cities of 10,000 dwellings or more.

The challenge with such schemes is that they are likely to take over 10 years to assemble and plan to the point of delivery, and incur at least £10m in fees and related promotional costs. Against the current uncertain planning backdrop for such schemes in the UK this clearly invokes risk and a scale of investment which few private sector firms could contemplate.

Perhaps more pragmatically, the current government has recognised that new garden cities and towns the size of Letchworth or Milton Keynes are unlikely to find universal favour or contribute to the short-term housing supply. As such, it has started to rebrand several of the country’s larger forthcoming development sites as “garden towns or communities”. These include Ebbsfleet, Bicester, Basingstoke, Didcot and emerging schemes in north Northamptonshire and north Essex.

The potential confusion which this creates is that many of these developments – planned over many years and, in the case of Ebbsfleet, consented over 10 years ago – did not in their conceptual phases design in the characteristics and principles of garden cities. Therefore, they have not been structured around the land value capture models which underpinned the previous garden city movement.

While I agree that we should not establish a fixed set of rules for every garden community, there are core principles which should underpin such developments

At Crest Nicholson we have for many years championed these principles. Indeed, we have worked with the TCPA for several years with a view to encouraging cross-party support for successful new garden village communities. These “garden village principles” have been applied on several of our 1,500 to 2,000 dwelling communities. They lead to distinctive, high-quality developments, where, through supporting community interest companies, the long-term legacy is also secured with the new community’s pro-active and enthusiastic involvement. These schemes, such as Crest Nicholson’s Tadpole Garden Village in Swindon, are unique – the population density is lower, there is more green space and greater attention given to the integrated design of homes. More resources are committed to the establishment of sustainable and thriving new communities. In our experience such schemes are well received by all parties and help remove the poor reputation some inadequately planned new build housing developments have created in the past.

Against this backdrop the government has just published its Locally-led garden villages, towns and cities prospectus. It is seeking proposals to be submitted by the end of July 2016 for up to 12 “garden villages of between 1,500 and 10,000 homes”. It is also seeking, on a rolling basis, expressions of interest for new “garden towns and cities” of 10,000 dwellings or more. The prospectus has chosen not to define any core principles for “garden communities” preferring instead for local communities to adopt “innovative approaches and solutions to creating great places, rather than following a set of rules”.

While I agree that we should not establish a fixed set of rules for every garden community, there are core principles which should underpin such developments if they are to become worthy of their name.

The prospectus calls for such proposals to be local authority-led with support from developers and/or landowners and, in the case of larger communities, support from local enterprise partnerships (LEPs). Encouragingly the prospectus offers funding for local planning authority (LPA) staff, albeit while making it clear that there should be a credible route to delivery without additional public subsidy.

Proposals should include 20% starter homes and demonstrate how the necessary infrastructure will be delivered. It encourages proposals which show how land costs will be minimised and where land value capture may play an important role.

At Crest Nicholson, we will be working with several LPAs to support the submission of innovative and sustainable proposals and welcome the aim and thrust of the initiative. However, it should be recognised that unless existing sites identified in local plans are rebadged to expedite the process, to start from scratch in assembling sites will take a minimum of five to six years (a problem which beset the eco-site initiative).

Notwithstanding this, a renewed focus on the creation of quality and carefully planned developments rather than just delivery at all cost is a positive step in the right direction and this creates the opportunity for any enlightened LPA to grab the initiative, select a delivery partner and shore up its five to 10-year housing land supply with locally inspired developments which will enjoy strong enthusiastic support at a regional level. The question remains as to how many LPAs have the political appetite, resources and skill to take on the challenges set out in the prospectus and to identify the opportunities.

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