It may be an old idea, but if done properly the latest crop of government-approved garden cities could really help meet housing need in a sustainable way

Richard McCarthy

Bicester has just been confirmed as England’s newest garden city, reviving an idea that has just celebrated its 100th anniversary and which spawned the garden suburbs and cities of the early 20th century along with the post-war new towns.

The origins of garden cities were a reaction against the squalor, overcrowding and disease rife in late Victorian cities. Their origins were in a desire for land reform and a vision of new self-sufficient communities where the value created through development and growth was retained in the community and reinvested in social infrastructure.

The pioneer of the concept was Ebenezer Howard, whose vision was a new settlement self-sufficient in terms of employment - industry and agriculture around the outer rings - and with each city linked to its neighbours by rail, not for commuting purposes but for sharing cultural and leisure facilities. Garden cities would set the primary civic functions in a central park, ringed by a great glass shopping arcade, beyond which would lie halos of housing and schools, encircled by a peripheral necklace of factories and services. High quality of design and low-density development characterised the earliest examples at Letchworth and Welwyn. Like their more urban cousins, these retain local trusts to reinvest the proceeds of development in the communities.

Adopted in 1947 as part of the solution to the housing crisis, further “new towns” were created - Stevenage, Harlow, Peterlee and Skelmersdale etc - to move people from bomb-ravaged slums into better quality housing close to jobs, schools and leisure facilities. The quality of design and community trusts did not survive, however, and neither, in some cases, did the original employment.

Critics point to the problems created by the massive movement of families away from established communities with rich social networks that provided mutual support; the expansion of the major cities into rural areas; and in some cases the poor quality of design and construction (Skelmersdale in particular had serious problems with wall tie failure).

The current crop of new settlements in Bicester, Ebbsfleet and Northstowe are welcome initiatives to deliver more homes. Each has had a long and challenging gestation and each is factored on major improvements in infrastructure, designed to facilitate commuting to existing employment centres. Critical factors will be creating a balanced age profile across the new communities, offering different types of accommodation from the outset, and ensuring that there is choice - choice about whether to move, choice about the type of housing and choice about the tenures available. This implies attention to affordability, from considering the ability of people already working in the area to afford the homes, as well as the new households.

Delivering these new settlements in some cases means reusing previously used land, whether it is the quarry at Ebbsfleet or former military land at Bicester or Aldershot’s urban extension, where 4,000 homes are planned on a former military garrison. Exploiting the need to make better use of public assets may help generate support for the new developments, whether it is stitching a new community into an existing settlement or creating a wholly new place and generating value from surplus NHS or MoD land. Equally, as industry changes, there is scope to bring older industrial areas into use as housing; modern manufacturing is less land-hungry and less of a bad neighbour than it was previously.

The essence of the garden city was the proximity to employment, with people living and working in the city rather than commuting from a dormitory suburb to metropolitan employment. But there is much that can be taken from the garden cities and suburbs approach. Quality of design and construction is fundamental to success. Mixed tenure and diverse built forms with a single, unifying, design strategy help give a sense of place, as does a community for all ages. This needs to be underpinned by sustainable local employment, as in the case of Milton Keynes. Many new towns took a very narrow cohort of people, whose needs evolved together, putting pressure on social infrastructure.

Investment in new homes and communities is welcome, and badging this as creating new garden cities is welcome and powerful, but it remains to be seen if the new developments will truly embrace the concept to deliver sustainable communities. Perhaps the most significant thing that can be taken, as we look to a new generation of garden cities and garden suburbs, is the retention of some of the value created for community-led investment. This requires leadership and a long-term view of the returns created. Perhaps this approach, where the benefits of development are shared with the residents, could help expedite the creation of new places and build the homes we need for our children, and their children.

Richard McCarthy is executive director, central government, at Capita