A new wave of garden towns could soon be getting under way, after communities secretary James Brokenshire invited councils and developers to put forward their housing schemes for the next phase of its garden communities programme.
The government is offering funding, advice from Homes England and cross-government brokerage to schemes that are backed by the local authority and have more than 10,000 planned units– but it will also consider supporting garden villages of 1,500 units or more. It is not yet clear how many new garden towns will be named, or which pot any new funding will come from.
So why is the government throwing its weight behind garden towns? And how much can they actually contribute to housing delivery?
“The appeal of these large-scale schemes is that they give local authorities and the government the ability to solve the housing crisis in large, one-off hits,” says Robert Smith, head of strategic land at Carter Jonas. “They can also generate enough value to contribute to wider regeneration and infrastructure.”
According to the Town and Country Planning Association, a garden town is a “holistically planned new settlement that enhances the natural environment, tackles climate change and provides high-quality housing and locally accessible jobs in beautiful, healthy and sociable communities”.
The government says that its current programme has already supported 23 garden communities, which have the potential to provide more than 200,000 new homes by 2050. That date underscores one of the key drawbacks of garden villages: delivering a new community from scratch takes time.
“They are the most complex solution to housing need, but they are also the best long-term solution,” says Peter Freeman, founder of developer Argent.
Smith sees them being curated and managed in the long term in the same way Grosvenor or Cadogan manage their core central London estates. “It is not about being so obsessed with delivery, but how these communities will function going forward,” he says.
Martyn Saunders, director of regeneration and spatial planning at GVA, agrees. “Schemes of 100 units are relatively quick, but they aren’t going to last forever,” he says. “It is much more about community and the sustainability of these places. Taking on another urban extension to an existing town without the other things you need is not sustainable.”
The government will provide funding to successful schemes but only to help with initial assessment, infrastructure and planning costs – and the amount is unlikely to be huge. When the last round of 14 garden villages was announced in 2017, it equated to an average of £428,000 per settlement. Freeman says this amount is much lower than the actual cost of readying a garden town site for development and creating a masterplan, which he estimates is closer to £4m.
There’s more to the assistance the government can offer than just money, however. “The process is more about the designation, and clearly what has happened with other garden towns is that there has been government assistance, but not significant funding,” says Saunders. “Bringing government departments – Homes England, the Environment Agency, planning committees – together behind this agenda should not be underestimated.”
Planning departments will be key to developing these multifaceted, large-scale communities. Some argue that they do not have the resources to meet the challenges posed by garden towns.
“It is vital that planning teams are properly resourced to deliver at a more strategic level,” says Victoria Hills, chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute. “We have seen too many large developments in the wrong place with no proper strategic planning and consideration for quality design.”
Saunders believes that one key requirement of the towns in particular – that they provide jobs – is not currently being focused on enough. “Making them more diverse places where you would want to live – places with a viable commercial heart, a town centre, employment so it is not a dormitory town – that seems to be the bit no one talks about,” he says.
“[Garden towns] are the most complex solution to housing need, but they are also the best long-term solution”
Peter Freeman, Argent
This is something of a chicken-and-egg situation. Developers often need capital from selling houses to be able to develop commercial space, but people are less likely to buy a house if there is no prospect of employment nearby.
Freeman agrees. “[The government] has got to remember that this isn’t all about housing numbers. Unless we put in employment uses too, we are missing a massive trick,” he says.
There could be a role for the government, or even local authorities, to assist with funding here. Saunders says he “wouldn’t be surprised” to see some local authorities putting in their own funding to garden towns, given their desire for long-term income, their recent exploits in the commercial property market and the pressure they are under to provide housing.
Garden towns are never going to provide a quick fix to the UK’s housing issues – but if this new round can transcend the various challenges and deliver on its stated aims, they will be worth the wait.