The Garden City Model – A panacea to London’s 21st century housing challenge?

In an effort to engage the Region in debate about the resurgence of the garden city (or variations thereof), RTPI London in partnership with the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL brought together some of the country’s most informed thinkers with officials from DCLG in an interesting debate on the subject in the atmospheric setting of the Gustav Tuck Lecture Theatre at UCL.

The format of the evening was admittedly ambitious; summing up context of the housing crisis; exploring different ideas about how growth should be accommodated (specifically garden cities and their variants) followed by an explanation of the Ebbsfleet Urban Development Corporation (UDC) initiative, and a discussion of its merits in the context of London and the Southeast’s housing challenge. With only 15 minutes each to present, our speakers had their work cut out.

Focus

In order to address the title question of the event, Professor Michael Edwards succinctly explained that although land supply constraints (including planning) are part of the cause of the housing challenge; it is actually result of a range factors; from a culture of land/property ownership as a key to wealth accumulation to an unrealistic expectation that the market will provide. To save our readers getting squared-eyes, all of this can be read on the attached slides for the event. But some important numbers are worth repeating here;

In London, 62,000 homes per year need to be built up to 2026, but there is only capacity for 42,000. Conclusion; the excess demand will undoubtedly spill into the region, which calls for joined-up strategy. 15,000 homes at Ebbsfleet is a quarter of London’s annual need which is why projects like Ebbsfleet are relevant to London, but whether they are a panacea to the remaining shortfall is doubtful.

As far as how to apply the garden city model to address the shortfall is concerned, Michael turned to its fundamental economic concept; to be successful, the nettle of existing use value compensation needs to be grasped; agricultural land should be bought at its existing value, not hope value, in order for the “unearned increment” to reinvested into any new town. Democratic shortcomings associated with delivery need to be addressed and ultimately, the idea of new towns (garden cities or not) are only part of the solution to the housing problem.

Uxcester vs Ebbsfleet

With the scene set, it was Nicholas Falk’s turn to take the stand, taking the audience through URBED’s proposal (winning favour with judges of the Wolfson Prize for economics in 2014) which argues that the traditional Garden City model as developed by Ebeneezer Howard would not be viable as a new town today, simply because the value tapped into from the unearned increment would not be enough to pay for the infrastructure required for a brand-new town. Instead, drawing on international examples such as Freiburg and Amsterdam, the URBED model involves grafting extensions onto existing town stock (ideally “popular” places) where people actually want to live and work; cutting car dependency and creating new community hubs (around schools, for example). Going by these ideas, Ebbsfleet is not a model consistent with what URBED considers to be a suitable way of accommodating growth.

DCLG responds

Enter Louise Wyman of DCLG, whose presentation was a good round up of the “on-the-ground” challenge at Ebbsfleet. In response to earlier criticism, Louise explained that in government’s view, and in the absence of any new radical changes to legislation about land acquisition, for now Ebbsfleet is part of the solution to the problems that Michael outlined earlier. Receiving £200m of funding for infrastructure and with existing rail links established with the majority of the site in an old quarry, Ebbsfleet is a good location for a “new town”, as evidenced by the fact that planning permission already exists there for 11,000 homes already.

Mark Davis (also of DCLG) explained the government’s approach to setting up the UDC; the public consultation process being followed and the powers it will have (limited to Development Control but not plan making).

Discussion;

Michael was not sure why such a prime spot for development needs government support, given its location and infrastructure in place (served by a High Speed Rail Link into London). He also made the point that the “garden city” label was limiting, asserting that not everyone wants a garden and more high density options should be explored too. In response to the question by the Event Chair (Harry Burchill) whether he was convinced by DCLG’s UDC proposal in terms of its democratic accountability he answered “no,” but taking the opportunity he explained that the democratic accountability of UDC’s have varied in the past.

The challenge of acquiring land at existing value was also discussed further; Nicholas used the example of Germany, where, when land is identified for growth prices are frozen.

In response to other questions Nicholas explained that according to the URBED study, Oxford could be doubled in size by developing only 5% of the surrounding Green Belt.

Questions that followed drew out some key assertions including charges that Ebbsfleet was only a “garden city” by label only.

Another comment put forward was not clear what a “garden city” offers, and that government needs to be clearer about what it means in order to attract more localities to opt for such a model (if its what they want to pursue), although localities that are amenable to the idea should be located in the right places for sustainable development to succeed.

Finally

Overall, the short answer to the question “is garden city model be a panacea to a 21st Century Housing Challenge,” was probably “no” and perhaps raised more questions than it answered, but that was to be expected given the nature of the topic. However, it was a great opportunity to refresh our understanding of the housing crisis, hear from DCLG about the Ebbsfleet project as well as the winners of the Wolfson Prize. The debate did bring to the fore interesting questions about the nature of what it means to be a “garden city” and to revisit the challenges facing London and the southeast, together with a healthy critique of a current top-down planning initiative by government. Striking a balance between strategic top-down delivery (under whatever label it may be) with democratic place making will continue to generate debate, which we hope to explore further in our “thinking strategically” series. A good opportunity for students, practitioners and teachers to come together in the first of a series of low cost/free events hosted by RTPI London in 2015.

 

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