Planting seeds

Originally published on January 3 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Two major housing announcements before most people have gone back to work sets some sort of record even by recent standards.

Late on Monday the government confirmed the go-ahead for the first of “thousands” of Starter Homes to be sold at a 20% discount to first-time buyers aged between 23 and 40. And on Monday morning, the government named 17 sites for new garden villages and garden towns. If only it were as easy to build homes as it is to put out press releases on a bank holiday.

I’ll come back to Starter Homes soon. But first off, those 17 garden towns and villages. As far as it goes, the idea is a welcome acknowledgement of the need for radical action to build more new homes.

But the emphasis on them being “locally led” only underlines the desperate need for national leadership if the response to the housing crisis is to go beyond leaving it to the market with a few extra bits tacked on around the edges.

As it is, Monday’s first government announcement of the year is eerily reminiscent of the “radical new policy shift” promised by David Cameron 12 months ago: initiatives that are promising in themselves and get media coverage but do not go remotely far enough to make any real difference.

It also recalls the original emphasis of the Conservatives’ localist reforms to planning: scrapping top-down targets and allowing local communities to plan for their own needs. As rapidly became clear, and as subsequently acknowledged in the National Planning Policy Framework, that meant without doing anything to meet the need for new homes coming from outside the area.

The announcement is hopefully a trailer rather than a substitute for more comprehensive measures in the Housing White Paper that is expected later this month, but it’s worth taking a moment to place it in the context of previous plans for new, eco and garden cities, towns and villages.

Monday’s proposals do not seem to have much in common with the original garden cities built according to the vision of Ebenezer Howard, apart from the name.

Perhaps the prospectus will set out more of the principles that will make them worthy successors to Letchworth and Welwyn, but there is little sign that the new model will include a principle that was fundamental to the original one: land value capture so the “unearned increment” from planning pemission for homes is kept for the benefit of the community rather than disappearing into the pockets of landowners.

And while 48,000 new homes in 14 new villages is not to be sneezed at, it is tiny by comparison with the 27 new towns built in two waves after the war (including five in Scotland and one in Wales).

Far from being locally led, the first generation of 14 new towns was imposed from the centre, despite local objections. Lewis Silkin, the Labour housing minister, had arrived in Stevenage to find that protestors had changed the signs at the railway station to read ‘Silkingrad’. He told a mostly hostile crowd of 3,000 people outside the town hall: “It’s no good you jeering, it’s going to be done.”

The second generation of new towns added more new homes: completions in Milton Keynes alone averaged 5,000 a year from 1967 to 1991.

Nobody would claim that it’s not vital to build local support or that the new towns were perfect or that they solved the housing crisis on their own – see my recent blog on Peterborough for more on that – but they did show the sort of ambition and scale we need now.

Nothing more was heard of new towns until the idea was rebranded under Gordon Brown. The five and then 10 ‘eco towns’ he promised in party conference speeches resulted in precisely zero new homes being built as they spawned a similar number of vociferous opposition campaigns.

So perhaps there is a pragmatic, ‘something is better than nothing’ case for accepting locally led plans. Especially when investment is available to help build capacity within local authorities to get them off the ground.

Another lesson from the eco-towns failure was that the locations of new communities needs to be carefully chosen and planned rather than simply dumped where there happens to be a redundant airfield. And several of the ‘garden’ towns and villages announced on Monday seem to be re-heated versions of all or part of the eco-town proposals.

However, as the stalled ‘garden city’ at Ebbsfleet shows, even superb transport infrastructure and a train station on the doorstep with fast links to London and the Channel Tunnel do not guarantee success.

The idea of garden cities was revived under the coalition and supported by both David Cameron and Nick Clegg but the ambition has been gradually scaled back to towns and then villages.

Entries for the Wolfson Economics Prize in 2014 showed that there is no shortage of vision out there. The winning entry from Urbanism, Environment and Design (URBED) called for 30 to 40 English towns and cities to double in size, a proposal that really did have the scale to be a major part of a long-term solution to the housing crisis. Opinion polling for the prize also showed that the idea of garden cities had 74% support from the public.

However, none of that was enough to convince the then housing minister. On the same evening the winner was announced, Brandon Lewis said it was “not government policy and will not be taken up”. He went on to say: “We are committed to protecting the green belt from development as an important protection against urban sprawl.”

Compared with that, Monday’s announcement is welcome progress. Gavin Barwell argues that Monday’s 17 towns and villages, plus seven garden towns previously announced, have the potential to deliver 200,000 new homes. But how many of these will really be built when there is already growing opposition to some of them and Ebbsfleet is one of the seven previously announced?

The government is at least peeking tentatively beyond its five-year term, but we need to look at what will be needed over the next 10, 20, 40 years and act accordingly. Without that long-term vision we are destined to keep on asking ourselves why we do not build enough new homes, why the ones we have are not affordable and why DCLG press officers and/or spads work so hard on a bank holiday.


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