Garden villages are earmarked to provide 48,000 homes which won’t be a gamechanger for the UK’s housing supply

Sarah Richardson

When housing minister Gavin Barwell unveiled the locations of 14 new “garden villages”, he managed, with one phrase, to cocoon the prospect of new housing in a blanket comforting enough to warm the most development-fearing hearts of Middle England. As PR moves go, the dog-whistle evocation of manicured lawns and cosy, cricket-loving communities hit a clear six. But with the villages earmarked to provide 48,000 homes between them over an unspecified timeframe, against an estimated annual need of 200,000 homes a year, critics have already questioned whether the move is another example of politicians addressing the housing crisis more with hype than homes.

In terms of pure numbers, it’s fair to say that the villages aren’t going to be a gamechanger for the UK’s housing supply. But then, no single development initiative is, and in the current situation, every boost to building helps. Where the initiative really is one to watch, however, is in how well the schemes end up being co-ordinated with the infrastructure development that will make these communities – deliberately situated away from existing towns and cities – viable places to live.

The government’s vision for the garden villages – a twist on 19th century garden cities for the home baking and crafting generations – is for them to be self-sustaining communities. They would have local schools, shops, and doctors’ surgeries, maybe a pub or two. Without these facilities, the villages risk becoming no more than depressing out-of-town housing estates: future Jaywicks, with newer homes, but no brighter a future.

In reality, however, many of the developments – which range from 1,500 to 10,000 homes – will struggle to finance construction of their own social infrastructure. Some, at the smallest end of the scale, would also struggle to support it, even after it was built. But these communities would still be totally viable, pleasant places to live as long as there were decent transport links to neighbouring towns and cities.

In both scenarios, the government has a critical role to play in directing the funding for infrastructure – social and economic – to enable the villages to overcome these issues. It has so far pledged a £6m fund to support the programme, but with experts expecting that this will be eaten up by planning costs, the villages will be reliant on schemes such as the £2bn housing infrastructure fund, announced in last year’s Autumn Statement.

The villages’ backers are optimistic that they will be in pole position for these funds, as they are already part of a government-approved initiative, and have the support of local planning authorities. Securing such funding is of course a big part of the picture; and it’s in the government’s interests to ensure their confidence is well placed. Just as crucial, however, is the co-ordination of that finance and any infrastructure planning consents with the delivery of the housing scheme itself.

In this respect, the villages can be seen as a test-bed for larger schemes across the country, with the UK’s outdated transport infrastructure, and pressure on schools and hospitals, problems continuously brandished by campaigners and local politicians opposed to plans that would increase housing supply.

If the government could instil greater confidence that the developments it enables contain both housing and infrastructure schemes that are planned together, and keep pace with one another, it would provide a powerful counter-argument against the nimbyism that sees so many schemes mired in political and planning wrangles.

It would also create greater certainty not just for housebuilders, but for the wider construction industry, over the wisdom of investing upfront in the processes that will ultimately make all this development more efficient and cheaper to produce. Contractors, with paper-thin margins and the uncertainty of Brexit looming large, are struggling to justify investment in so-called modern methods of construction. And when that investment is made, the lack of a pipeline is in danger of making it more of a liability than an asset – as demonstrated by Laing O’Rourke’s latest woes this week.

But if contractors could actually start to see that building the homes the UK indisputably needs will entail new schools, health centres and infrastructure on the same trajectory, their confidence to invest could only be improved.

Sarah Richardson, editor