Planning for the future: Garden Villages

With the government aiming to build hundreds of thousands of new homes over the next few years, the current planning trend is not sustainable. The creation of new garden towns and villages offers an attractive option for some of the housing needed, with strong infrastructure provided alongside new homes, meaning less travel and less congestion in nearby towns. 

The current system

Piecemeal planning consents mean that many current new build homes are tacked on to the edges of existing towns and villages. Builders include a minimal amount of infrastructure in their plans, simply relying on that which is already in place. As communities sprawl outwards, those in the new homes need to make car journeys into the town centre to access amenities such as health care, schools and shops, adding to congestion and parking problems.

The town or village residents are opposed to the new development, which takes away the nearby areas of countryside that they value and overburdens the historic centre. New build therefore gains a reputation for ruining traditional communities.

Landowners cash in on owning land around settlements, knowing that theirs is the next property that builders will be able to obtain planning permission for, raising prices. Builders, having paid a high price for the land, squeeze in as many homes as they can, minimising outside space and creating houses with unattractive proportions and tiny gardens.

The garden community solution

What people really want, when buying a new home, is a decent and affordable property, in a strong community with local facilities and a good school. Garden towns could provide this, with small commercial units provided alongside living accommodation. The modest unit size would allow for easy change of use, from retail to office to café, as well as meaning a low rental cost and minimal, if any, business rates.

What constitutes a garden community?

The government defines a garden community as having the following characteristics:

• A new, purpose-built settlement or large extension to an existing town
• A community with a clear identity and attractive environment;
• A mix of homes, to include affordable and self-build

The stated aims include;

• Job opportunities;
• Green space and public areas;
• Provision of roads, buses and cycle routes;
• Provision of schools, community and health centres;
• Long-term stewardship of community assets.

Advantages of garden community living

Done properly, the garden community provides a vibrant, mixed-use environment with an attractive and functioning centre, public areas and the capacity for future growth. It should also be self-sustaining, meeting many of the residents’ needs locally, including schooling, health care, shopping and dining. 

Travel should be possible by walking, cycling, rapid transit or park and ride, thereby cutting congestion. By situating the new community away from existing towns and villages, not only is traffic to those centres kept at a manageable level, but the countryside surrounding them is maintained and the historic nature of older settlements preserved.

While residents of garden communities will still travel to large shopping centres and leisure facilities, the daily journeys to work, school and local shops can be made without adding to traffic problems in existing towns. This will offer a better quality of life for residents than those living on housing estates on the outskirts of busy towns, where traffic to the centre is increasingly slow.

By including smaller units for retail and other commercial use, the community will be assured a variety of independent shops, cafés etc. as well as offices and creative work spaces.

Policy needs

Much national policy is now in place. My Garden Village proposals were adopted by Government in 2016, the New Towns Act updated in the following two years, and further supportive updates to the National Planning Policy Framework just this year. 

For the country to benefit from new garden towns and villages, as well as protecting existing historic communities, best practice is Local Authorities working to put local plan policy in place to set out the key criteria they will require to support new settlements around placemaking, community infrastructure, and mixed use. 

Often, landowners will willingly cooperate, but need to understand that land value needs to reflect the need for this placemaking investment – on land that otherwise only has agricultural value. But where landowners won’t accept this, they need to bear in mind that the updated New Towns Act has made it quicker and easier for Local Authorities to acquire agricultural land at existing use value for larger new settlement proposals. 

Either way (and working with land owners is likely to be preferred in most cases),  the key is that this is land otherwise holding only agricultural value as it is not on the edge of town – and capturing part of the value uplift of development permission to create the needed infrastructure and community place making of a 21st century market town or village is the ‘price’ of the right to build these homes. So Local Authorities need to make it clear that planning consents will only be granted if the community needs are met within the proposals. 

Large scale strategic planning will be needed to put together a garden community proposition. The authorities should consider proactively seeking out suitable land, and landowners and communitiers need to know this scale of proposal will only happen with the right infrastructure and great placemaking – that’s the difference this approach brings.

Government support

The government’s second “Garden Communities” prospectus, published in August 2018, expresses clear expectations of quality, following the Garden City principle. Funding of £2.85 million has been put aside to support the development of 19 new garden villages, creating 73,554 homes. In February of this year, £9 million was put towards existing garden community projects, to try and speed up planning work. The following month, the government announced £3.7 million towards five new garden towns set to provide 64,000 homes, with the funding going towards planning consent work, specialist surveys and less profitable parts of the infrastructure build. In total 43 new Garden Towns and Villages have now got official government support since the policy was adopted in 2016 – to deliver more than three quarters of a million new homes. Many more are under consideration.

In summary

The garden community is just one part of the new build policy that the country needs in order to have enough housing stock for the future. Alongside it, we also need urban regeneration and carefully controlled urban expansion, with sufficient facilities to prevent them becoming simply dormitory extensions.

The creation of new settlements offers a good quality solution for the future. They will offer larger, affordable, pleasant homes with good-sized gardens and an attractive environment combined with a sustainable, economically vibrant town or village centre. When the land has been acquired at low cost, there is more scope to include a variety of premises for small entrepreneurs to open the local shops, cafés and pubs that make historic communities so sought after. The inclusion of basic units will encourage local workers such as plumbers, electricians and accountants to open there, bringing more services and helping the town or village become more self-sustaining. 

If Local Authorities can learn how to support the planning of these new garden communities, they will be able to provide the homes that people really want.

With thanks to Lord Taylor of Goss Moor

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