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Guest blog: Why we need garden villages

17 May 2016 Author: Lord Taylor of Goss Moor

In this guest blog, Matthew Taylor (Lord Taylor of Goss Moor) shares his views on the benefits of garden villages and how they could be realised. The government having promised to get legislation to modernise the New Towns Act to deliver locally led garden villages and towns, another bill is widely anticipated in the new parliamentary session, likely to be flagged in the Queens Speech this week. The bill is likely to include measures to enable local authorities to create garden settlements. 

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I’ve spent the last decade working with successive governments on how we address the fundamental question of how we supply the homes we need – and that means cracking the politics of land supply, the economics of housing delivery, and the all too often poor quality of what we have been delivering.

Today, the default option for new homes is endless ‘anywhere town’ estates crammed onto the green fields around historic communities, built there in the name of ‘sustainability’ but in fact adding to congestion.

It’s not that this is what planners aspire to. It’s what the economics of land supply and concentrating development on the urban fringe delivers.

However, these are also the green fields people value precisely because they are on their doorstep and as the setting of their historic communities. They are the fields that absorb the flood water and provide access to the countryside.

This is also the land that is most costly, controlled by options guaranteeing the highest possible prices with, as a result, few if any services. We build these estates on the edge of town arguing they are sustainable because they are close to existing services. But in reality we all know the people who move into the new homes drive across town to everything, leading to ever-more congested roads and overcrowded schools and surgeries.

Residents don’t get the homes they want, either. People are well able to describe their hopes – a decent and affordable house and garden, in a strong community with local facilities and a good school. Yet we almost always fail to deliver this.

In February last year the think tank Policy Exchange published my detailed proposal for giving local authorities the option to acquire low-grade agricultural land not normally available for development, but well located to create new small-scale “garden villages”.  In this year’s Budget, the Government committed to take action.

These announcements, buried deep in the Budget detail and now being rolled out (including amendments I introduced to the Housing and Planning Bill with Government support to make the process quicker and easier), could radically change the way we deliver new homes. The opportunity is there to be seized.

Because rural councils will be able to acquire land for these garden villages at an affordable price, the development bodies they create will be able to afford to invest upfront in the schools, shops, GP surgeries, workplaces, parks and sports fields to create sustainable communities.  This will all be achievable at no expense to taxpayers, as the cost will be repaid by plot sales. Landowners won’t get a windfall in the form of an unearned multi-million-pound payoff, but they will get decent compensation.

Keeping the cost of land moderate will make the homes built on it more affordable too. With plots readily available to all comers, prices will be driven down through competition.

There should be plenty of choice. Low-cost plots can be made available for self-builders and those wanting to commission a home from a local builder, as well as to housing associations, small and medium-sized businesses, and new entrants to the UK housing market including o  including o verseas builders used to mass producing at scale.

Most importantly, this could also help councils struggling to deliver the homes their communities need in the face of understandable concerns from existing residents about the impacts of new development. Meeting the deadlines for local plans will also become easier as housing need could be more readily met with a single new settlement. Control won’t be lost through selling the land to the highest bidder, rather the development body can make plots available on licence to ensure delivery within a strong design code.

This opens the path to the US and European model, in which homes are often built to order within well-planned settlements, and where the necessary social (and other) infrastructure is delivered by a “master builder” and funded by plot sales. As the development under this model can’t be controlled by one or two large housebuilders, no-one can control house prices by drip-feeding homes to a desperate market. Instead, builders will have to compete on quality and price. The development body, engaging commercial expertise, will act for the community as a whole to deliver a great place.

I believe this will be especially good news for historic market towns and villages besieged by speculative development proposals. Further, land values will need to adjust to the new option councils have to create new communities.

In turn, this will help to create sustainable, economically vibrant communities fit for the 21st century. With low-cost land, it is far easier to deliver the premises for local entrepreneurs that are typical of older settlements. This also avoids the traffic congestion problems associated with edge of town developments; in contrast, those travelling into major centers from a new settlement can be picked up at a park and ride and/or given rapid transport options.

Of course, this doesn’t rule out more conventional development options. But I believe it adds a game-changing option to the mix. This isn’t about more green fields being developed. It is about which green fields, and who gets the financial benefit of development.

If each of England's rural local authorities builds just one or two new garden villages during the next decade, they can deliver the extra homes desperately needed in their communities, in great, well-served new settlements, at prices people can afford.

And all without ruining the historic places we treasure.

Guest posts do not reflect the views of the RTPI.

Lord Taylor of Goss Moor

Lord Taylor of Goss Moor

Lord Taylor of Goss Moor is visiting professor of planning at Plymouth University. He authored a 2015 report for the Policy Exchange think tank on garden villages, and has advised the Treasury on implementing the proposals. Under the Coalition Government he led the review creating the new National Planning Practice Guidance. He also carried out a review of planning policy for the rural economy and affordable housing for the last Labour government.