Are garden cities the answer to the UK’s housing crisis?

Experts say that we need to build around 250,000 new homes each year over the next decade as higher birth rates, net migration to the UK and social changes create thousands of new households every month. The demand for houses has benefitted the construction industry in the boom areas of London and the south-east, but demand alone has not triggered housebuilding at the levels the country requires. Planning laws have changed in recent months and years to encourage brownfield development and the conversion of offices into flats, but many commentators suggest that these measures alone won’t get us to close to the quarter of a million annual target.

All three of the main parties backed the idea of garden cities as a potential solution to the housing crisis in their 2015 election manifestos. Originating in the 19th century, the concept of a garden city is simple: to combine the jobs and community of a city with the green spaces of the countryside. Low density housing, community ownership and a strong local economy are the (ideal) hallmarks of garden cities. Garden cities and ‘new towns’ were a key part of housing policy from the end of the Second World War and into the ‘60s and the ‘70s. Is now the time to fast-track new garden cities?

The case for

Traditionally, garden cities are located away from existing settlements but with their own infrastructure. Therefore, the creation of garden cities is an attractive alternative to building in the green belt and the urban sprawl it entails. Additionally, some commentators believe that ‘NIMBYism’ and local opposition is less of an issue for garden cities. There will be less opposition to one garden city that creates 20,000 homes than to a thousand developments of 20 homes each. Garden cities also provide the opportunity to put urban planning theory into action. The constraints of smaller developments or urban redevelopments rarely allow us to use planning best practice to create high quality neighbourhoods with affordable housing, plenty of green space and networks of footpaths and cycle paths. Finally, the case for garden cities is strengthened simply by the scale of the housing crisis – it’s unlikely that other forms of development will be sufficient to plug the gap themselves.

The case against

If we stay true to the spirit of the original garden cities, the housing within them is low density. Land is expensive, and its cost is one of the main barriers to developments, so should we really be building low density housing? Also, the term ‘garden city’ can be misleading – most garden cities are the size of large towns, with populations of less than 30,000. For example, the plan for a new garden city at Bicester is only for 13,000 new homes – just over 5% of the new housing we need each year. The garden city movement is over a century old, so we can look back at older garden cities to assess their success. Unfortunately, many of the original goals of the movement haven’t been met. The majority of garden cities aren’t self-sufficient – instead, they’ve become dormitory towns, where most residents commute to London or other large cities. Today’s garden cities act as little more than suburbs, and proposed developments at Ebbsfleet and Bicester are directly adjacent to existing developments – hardly true standalone garden cities. 

Overall, it seems that term ‘garden city’ has certainly warped since its original use, but the fact remains that large developments are required alongside smaller developments and planning changes. More garden cities in the south east of England would circumvent restrictions like the Green Belt and help to alleviate some of the pressure on the housing market, but these will undoubtedly serve as dormitory towns for London rather than having their own diverse local economies. However, the housing crisis is so severe that we need to start compromising – there’s no silver bullet.

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