Is utopian town planning really the answer to the housing crisis?

Stephanie Canham

There will be a new garden city at Bicester in Oxfordshire. The government announcement was made in a press release on 2nd December and confirmed in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. The population of this market town could be doubled by the building of up to 13,000 new homes in addition to 6,000 “green” homes already being built in a new “eco town” to the north west. A new junction off the M40 will also be built to improve transport links.

Bicester is intended to be one of three new such developments which form part of the government’s plan to tackle the British housing crisis. The site of a disused quarry at Ebbsfleet in Kent has also been earmarked to deliver 15,000 new houses.

So what is a Garden City? And how would the plans for Bicester be implemented by a government with a wish list of 250,000 new homes a year until 2020 and a £2 billion pot to spend?

The need to encourage building by SME builders has been identified by both the Labour party and the government

Whilst the government has declined to be prescriptive at this stage about the exact requirements for the new garden cities, it is clear that robust design (which includes consideration of the needs of particular social groups, such as the very young and very old) and sustainability will be key factors. Added to this is the need for affordable and social housing, employment (original plans from the late 1890s for Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire aimed for garden cities to be self-sufficient in this regard), maintenance of green spaces and biodiversity, together with integrated transport links to encourage the use of walking, cycling and public transport. Easy access to neighbouring towns and cities is also vital.

The construction of the new garden cities will place great emphasis on the roles of housing associations and local authorities. These schemes will only work if local authorities are granted adequate powers for planning and acquisition of land at reasonable values. The garden city model for delivery could follow that of Milton Keynes, (one of the new towns started in the 1960s) which was facilitated by a specially constituted development corporation. Such a corporation could also oversee the process of construction and perhaps the long term management of land and assets for the benefit of the community.

Who will be building these new houses? The government has a pilot project at Northstowe, a former RAF base in Cambridgeshire where the Homes and Communities Agency is taking the lead in building and selling tens of thousands of new homes on land formerly owned by the public sector. Such public sector land is included with other brownfield sites in the plans for Bicester.

The need to encourage building by small and medium-sized (SME) builders has been identified by both the Labour party (see the Lyons Housing Review) and the government. But where will SMEs figure in such large scale building projects, with their zero carbon and Section 106 exemptions and relatively small capacity? What about the “big six” builders? Will it be business as usual for them? And how will housing associations and local authorities respond to the fresh challenges?

This remains to be seen.

A final thought: are garden cities really a solution to the housing crisis? New cities based on utopian ideals combined with modern use of technology to achieve green ambitions are, of course, admirable. They should provide, in the short term at least, a useful boost to the construction industry as well as much needed housing and infrastructure. However, given the need for large-scale building in a relatively short time, can such schemes be enough to meet such a pressing need?

Stephanie Canham is national head of projects and construction at law firm Trowers & Hamlins