Clegg's on the right track, but what will make garden cities work?

Nick Clegg’s speech to the National House-Builders Council (NHBC) today sends the strongest signal yet that Government are beginning to take the challenge of our housing crisis seriously.

September’s growth ‘package’ was a step forward, but the proposed numbers of new homes were not sufficient. Today, Mr Clegg acknowledges the scale of home building needed, talking in hundreds – rather than tens – of thousands.

The notion of garden cities seems to be playing well. I can see why – many of our existing garden cities and new towns have been real successes. Two million people now live in them. They are popular places to live, but also to work in – Milton Keynes’ economy is growing and growing, bucking national trends.

What makes them successful?

A real success factor has been leadership. Of course, everyone talks about leadership being critical to success – it is the most clichéd truism.

But the movement had real, clear leadership in the form of New Town Development Corporations, who started from scratch, buying land through compulsory purchase order, cheaper for the fact it was agricultural beforehand, and created zones, setting land values and making significant development viable.

Two contrasting recent examples bring to life the importance of leadership: the Olympic Park and the Thames Gateway.

The Olympic Park saw a whole new neighbourhood and infrastructure built in a matter of a few years, providing thousands of new homes. The pressure to deliver meant that politicians instilled strong leadership: land was compulsorily purchased, homes were built, deadlines were met.

Thames Gateway was a great white hope, aimed at regenerating the post-industrial and economically depressed eastern fringes of London, building homes and creating jobs. But the mantra of the day was ‘partnership’ rather than leadership, and a complex web of developers, financiers, agencies and government arms were involved. The fragmented governance of the project meant that leadership was dispersed. Progress was disappointing and it has now tailed off – rarely is the project talked about now.

If you look at who built homes since the 1950s, it’s clear that the private sector can only build so many – the levels of private building have stayed relatively consistent, subject to economic peaks and troughs, disproving the analysis that the presence of the state crowds out the market.

Where house building levels drop is when local authority-backed developments tail off.

(image from LeftFootForward)

There is clearly an important role for the state in getting the homes we need built – it can show leadership, take bold actions, and coalesce partners in a way that others can’t when it comes to the grand projects needed to make headway on our housing crisis. The new town and garden cities movements and the Olympics confirm this.

That strong leadership by local government, combined with opportunities for them to raise finance for development, made our successful new towns possible. And these local authorities held their nerve – holding on to the land for as long as they needed to and taking a long term view of their area and their assets.

Government needs to move beyond ‘private good, public bad’ if it wants new garden cities to make a dent in our housing crisis and quickly. It must ensure that localism produces bold leaders, and that local government has enough power to leverage finance and deliver results.