Garden villages: are we learning from the past?

Capturing land values to benefit local people was one of the key principles that helped put garden cities and some new towns on a path to sustainable success. Will England’s new wave of garden villages follow suit?

Ebenezer Howard remains famous for championing garden cities. He proposed green cities to provide affordable homes and places to work and live more healthily than the slums of London.

Howard outlined his vision in his 1898 book first published as To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform, reissued as Garden Cities of To-morrow four years later. He described self-contained and ultimately self-sufficient communities, which would include a balance of residential, industrial and agricultural areas.

Through the Garden City Association, the precursor to the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), Howard was involved in building the first two garden cities: Letchworth, completed in 1903, and Welwyn Garden City in 1920. Later, after the New Towns Act of 1946, Britain built around 30 new towns drawing on garden city principles.

What would Howard think of the government’s early January announcement that 14 garden villages and three garden towns are to be supported with funding and the ‘offer of new planning freedoms’?

According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, £7.4m will be invested to support the delivery of the new settlements under the expansion of the garden towns programme, after a ‘high level of expressions of interest’ from councils in July 2016 (51 bids were submitted).

Each of the new garden villages will comprise 1,500 to 10,000 homes, between them delivering 48,000 new homes nationally. They are intended to be distinct, new settlements rather than extensions to existing villages or towns. A £6m fund will support their delivery; the government says the money will be used to ‘unlock the full capacity of sites, providing funding for additional resources and expertise to accelerate development and avoid delays’.

Meanwhile, £1.4m will go to three new garden towns approved at the start of the month. Each will include over 10,000 homes; the three new towns follow approvals previously made for seven garden towns.

A matter of principles

Will these new garden villages and towns be true to Howard’s vision? Or are they the same in name but not in principle?

The TCPA seemed like a good place to start to gauge opinion on the matter. Katy Lock, its garden cities advocate, has written that TCPA ‘welcomes the commitment to housing growth highlighted by the announcement of the latest authorities to receive support for garden towns and new garden villages’, but highlights that ‘the prospectus invited ambitious proposals that do not ‘use “garden” as a convenient label’ but ‘embed key garden city principles to develop communities that stand out from the ordinary’.

There are nine principles, ‘an indivisible and interlocking framework’ – as described on TCPA’s website. They include ‘land value capture’, explored in this article. Environment Journal readers will also find the seventh principle of interest: ‘Development that enhances the natural environment, providing a comprehensive green infrastructure network and net biodiversity gains, and that uses zero-carbon and energy-positive technology to ensure climate resilience. We look into the principle in more detail here.

Speaking with Environment Journal, TCPA’s Lock says: ‘The garden city principles are what made green cities and new towns so successful and they have been modernised for the 21st century. We’ve been very clear that these principles need to be committed to from the outset, not tacked on. A lot of that is down to ownership of the land and a commitment to reinvest land value.’

Janet Askew, past president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, tells me ‘the principles of garden cities and villages have been well known to town planners for over a century, and when planners did try to embed those principles when we were building the new towns, some were highly successful’.

She adds: ‘Milton Keynes, of course the last of the new towns, has been very successful. But if you zoom from Milton Keynes to the present day, the proposals for these new settlements appear to be a long way away from the principles.’

The TCPA, says Lock, has suggested how to achieve land value capture and reinvestment: ‘We’ve been saying to government that you need to provide the tools for councils to set up garden city development corporations that will commit to that. But government is not taking that approach, and want garden villages to be community led.’

So without having a set of standards, it is down to local authorities and developers to commit to the principles, adds Lock: ‘Government can encourage this, stressing the financial, social and environmental benefits, and can encourage local authorities to set standards in their local plans, but unless there is a requirement to do so they are leaving it down to councils to be ambitious.’

Will they? ‘Councils are busy, strapped for cash, don’t have enough staff: it’s tougher for them to take a long term view,’ says Lock: ‘One of their key challenges is that if they don’t have a local plan in place they are being bombarded with speculative planning applications from developers who want to build bolt-on developments.’

Long-term commitment

Some local authorities in TCPA’s New Communities Group wish to be exempt from their five-year house building requirements, she adds, to stop being bombarded by these applications.

Christine Whitehead, emeritus professor of housing economics and professor of housing at the London School of Economics, also expressed worries. ‘My concern is there is a massive need for well-designed, usable, green and other public space in developments, because that is what people use. Calling it garden town / village is not enough!’

Could legislation help? With a housing white paper now eagerly anticipated, what would TCPA most like to see included? Lock says one clear priority is for government to commit to update the New Towns Act: ‘They’ve said they will look into this; we want them to commit to do so and to set out provisions for long-term stewardship of new settlements, through creating garden city development corporations that could ensure new settlements are sustainable developments, are climate resilient places, and do capture and reinvesting land value.’

‘One of the astonishing things about the debate is that it is hard to see how the government can afford not to take this route,’ adds Lock, ‘after all, the new towns movement allowed the government in a post-war economy and at a time of austerity to deliver 30 new towns, which ultimately made a profit for the Treasury – and continues to make money for them.

‘The model we are proposing would pay for itself through land value capture.’

How does that work in practice? ‘By using a delivery model that retains ownership of the land and has control of delivery it means that those values created through the development can be reinvested to pay for infrastructure, community facilities and for organisations to run, manage and look after those facilities in the long term,’ she explains.

‘That’s something that the original new towns legislation didn’t do and that is why some of the original new towns are now run down – they had their assets stripped by government.’

There are parallels here to the parks trust model exemplified by Milton Keynes Parks Trust, which EJ featured in November. Lock agrees, ‘that is certainly a model we advocate.’

Janet Askew, another Milton Keynes fan, also expressed concern about land ownership: ‘One of the principles that many people don’t understand or respect is the principle of public ownership of land. Other principles describe building settlements that are self-contained, including housing, community facilities, shops and places of employment so that people can live and work in the town. And a new “garden” settlement should have a very firm boundary around it.

‘With the last wave of “garden” towns and new towns (in the new towns programme of the 1950s and 60s), those principles were adhered to. But in this latest round, the government latterly appears to have adopted this word without having any idea of what it means. And developers are loving this – the prefix “garden” sounds attractive but there’s no evidence that they have any idea what it means or the commitment to adhere to the principles.’

No silver bullet

One developer who certainly does understand what ‘garden’ means as a prefix is Anthony Downs, director of planning and development at Gascoyne Cecil Estates.

A founding partner of the International Garden Cities Institute, Downs says: ‘I am perhaps nervous about applying the “garden” tag to what in certain cases are pre-existing proposals.

‘The risk is that if developers or landowners exploit the reputation of the garden city movement then it must follow that the generally positive perception of the garden city movement will, over time, be eroded.

‘Having said this, given the acute housing crisis which the country is presently facing and the public’s general disappointment with a large proportion of modern development then it can only be right to consider alternative opportunities including those offered by new garden towns and villages.

‘In truth no one solution will cure the present housing shortage and it will be necessary to consider a mixture of regeneration and development types.’

Creating liveable places must be a priority, according to Susan Parham, academic director of The International Garden Cities Institute and head of urbanism at the University of Hertfordshire.

Giving her personal view on new settlements, she says: ‘What was really interesting in the prospectus was how government were open to a wide range of proposals from local authorities and partners.

‘It is good that in the background to this there has been some acknowledgement of the work of TCPA who have continued to remind government and local authorities of the principles that garden settlements should include.

‘One of the things we are seeing is attempts to build in community ownership of assets in ways that will return value to local people in keeping with one of the most critical of the garden city principles. It’s really important to find ways to develop places that are actually going to make them better rather than just being seen as an imposition on services and landscapes.

‘It’s great that there is this explicit approach to build at a variety of scales. On review I do think it is probably quite helpful: different groups of people can come up with proposals that are most suitable for their location.’

Parham feels ‘there is quite a lot of goodwill towards the idea of the new garden villages and towns’.

She adds: ‘One of the things that I have been pleased to see is that we are getting away from treating all new developments as dormitory housing estates. We have to make places. Different types of garden settlements are a way to do that.

‘We need to think about creating a place with opportunities to live, to work, and for leisure, and without increasing pressure on existing infrastructure.

As ever, transport infrastructure will be key to the success of new settlements. Perhaps we should be looking at areas where this will be easier to achieve, says Parham.

‘If you think about all of the railways that were closed in the Beeching era, there is legacy infrastructure in place: stations, routes, easements – all of which can possibly be brought back into use. Maybe we should look at these as possible sites for garden villages. Howard’s ideas for settlements as constellations, connected by “sustainable nodes” – electric railways and canals – could be resurrected.’

She remains optimistic about future developments: ‘The great legacy of Ebenezer Howard’s work is about creating places where people want to be. I remain very hopeful that the new garden settlements will play a part in solving our housing crisis – and create liveable neighbourhoods fit for the 21st century.’

Photo by Feggy Art 

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Jamie Veitch

Freelance writer and consultant

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