Garden cities hold out the attractive prospect of helping meet the demand for new housing, but political, financial and planning obstacles could nip them in the bud

Chris Tinker

There is a growing belief that garden cities will play an increasing role in meeting future housing demand. You only have to look at the Wolfson Economics prize, which this year is being awarded to the best model for delivering a new garden city, along with the announcement of a Development Corporation-led garden city in Ebbsfleet and the communities department’s new garden cities prospectus published in April.

At Crest Nicholson, we have been long-term supporters of the garden city principles which underpinned the new towns and are now home to more than 1.4 million people. They enable delivery at scale, to a quality masterplan which provides for attractive homes in well-landscaped settings alongside employment-generating development. If delivered properly they benefit from advance investment in physical and social infrastructure, including high-quality public realm, which is then underpinned by a vehicle such as a Community Interest Company through which community assets and income streams are safeguarded for the future.

Despite this support, it is clear that there are a number of sizeable hurdles to be overcome if we are to once again see the delivery of a meaningful number of garden cities in the locations where most new homes are required.

A garden city will take between seven and 10 years to come to committee. During this period there will remain significant uncertainty as to whether the proposal will ever gain approval. A daunting commercial proposition

The first challenge arises from the public sector’s abandonment of the strategic planning tier which largely results in housing allocations being considered for the next five-year time frame, but with little further forward planning as to where delivery at scale will come from in the medium term. Very few local politicians, knowing that such developments could be conceived and promoted through three general election cycles, will want to risk a huge potential public backlash at the prospect of more than 15,000 homes being developed on their doorstep.

The second major challenge revolves around the mechanism for assembling the necessary land. Requiring at least 1,000 hectares of land to be brought together from the outset, the Town and Country Planning Association would maintain that the only effective approach is through whole-scale compulsory purchase orders at existing use value plus a small premium. While conceptually this has merit, and was the approach which underpinned the delivery of the new towns, it very much relies upon skills and an appetite for investment not seen in the public sector for decades.

It is not beyond contemplation for the private sector to assemble the land, but given the scale this would be through agreeing options in a conventional manner, which can be both costly and complex. Such options would undoubtedly be subject to minimum land values which, even if set at modest levels, would start to work against the approach anticipated by the proponents of garden cities. They foresee most land value being “captured” by the project to help fund it, rather than being paid to landowners.

It is arguable that the planning system, with its reliance on the Community Infrastructure Levy and/or Section 106 agreements for the funding of physical and social infrastructure, would not be found fit for purpose when it comes to handling developments of this scale. It would certainly lead to very complex and difficult viability and deliverability assessments.

The communities department’s garden city prospectus envisages that such proposals will be public sector-led or, if privately promoted, that there will be demonstrable support from local planning authorities (LPAs) and stakeholders. This is again problematic. Developments of this scale will require significant studies into highways, transport, environment and ecology, together with the formulation of mitigation strategies long before the public sector will feel able to embrace such a development with confidence. This will be an iterative process and securing political buy-in during the early years may be unrealistic.

Last, but not least, for any private company or consortium contemplating promoting a garden city, there is the reality that it will cost nearer £10m than £5m in planning promotion and take between seven and 10 years to come to committee. During this period there will remain significant uncertainty as to whether the proposal will ever gain approval. A daunting commercial proposition.

Against this backdrop, and no matter how laudable and potentially beneficial the outcome, the journey to assemble, promote and get planning for a garden city under the current planning system is fraught with challenges. Arguably local enterprise partnerships, with their sub-regional context, and partnership between LPAs and the private sector, could overcome many of the above tensions. But this in turn will require a scaling up of their expertise and resources. So it will be interesting to see if the Wolfson Economics prize becomes a catalyst for “real” schemes, and what the scale of response will be to the communities department’s garden city prospectus.

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