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By enabling locally supported garden cities, the Government aims to speed up the pace of delivery in key areas of infrastructure developments while still safeguarding the need for communities to be involved. Here, Ian Tant, Senior Partner at Barton Willmore, offers his interpretation of the statement “The Government’s support for garden cities will solve the housing crisis.”

Let’s be clear from the start: new garden cities – new settlements or neighbourhoods designed on garden city principles – are an important part of the solution to the acute shortage of new housing in England.  Their merits are well-recognised and, as the Wolfson Economics Prize poll shows[1] the concept of new garden cities is popular with the public as well as politicians, urban designers and planners.

The problem is that new garden cities alone won’t solve the housing crisis. 

The first hurdle is planning.  Everyone wants garden cities, it seems, just like everyone wants new power stations to keep the lights on. The problem is that everyone wants them somewhere else.  It is notable that the first new garden city identified by the Government at Ebbsfleet is at a site that already has planning permission for large-scale development.  So far, no completely new site has emerged that has local support.

Then there is the pragmatic problem that many major developments take time – measured in years rather than months - to start delivering houses.  They take somewhat longer to start delivering in large numbers. 

It’s easy to underestimate the time taken from reaching the resolution to grant planning permission – when the scheme is given the ‘go-ahead’ by the local Council – to the start of housebuilding.  The finalisation of S106 Agreements and grant of planning permission isn’t the end of the process – it’s merely the end of the beginning.   The completion of land assembly, commissioning of infrastructure, site clearance for the first phases, and finally commencement of housebuilding, all have to be undertaken before new homes become available – and they all take appreciable amounts of time.

And even once housebuilding is underway, it can take up to 5 or 6 years before development achieves its peak level of housing delivery.  The standard profile for a major development is of a modest start to building – perhaps less than 100 dwellings in the first year or two, as the new place starts to be created.  Only once the neighbourhood, village, town or city has started to take shape will multiple phases of development be underway.   

There are steps that can be taken to shorten lag times but they cannot be eradicated completely and cannot be ignored in planning for large scale developments, particularly for new settlements.

New garden cities can – and must – be part of the solution to our housing crisis.  But the problem they will solve will be that of meeting higher housing needs in the 2020’s and 2030’s.  They will form only a modest part of meeting needs in the current decade and solutions to the immediate crisis lie in a wide range of new housing sites and thus in releasing a broad portfolio of sites of all sizes – including new garden cities, towns and neighbourhoods. 

[1] Architects Journal online edition, 2nd June 2014


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