Today the short list for the Wolfson Economics Prize was announced, and we’re very excited to be one of only five finalists selected from 279 entries.
A new generation of garden cities could make a real contribution to solving our housing crisis. So we were delighted that Lord Wolfson decided to award this years Wolfson Economics Prize – the second largest in the world, apparently – to the best plan for delivering a new garden city. Shelter decided to enter the competition because we wanted to show how the vision for a bigger, better and smarter house building system that we published with KPMG last month works in practice. And we were determined to demonstrate that it is possible to build a great new town with plenty of genuinely affordable homes, quickly and efficiently.
As polling by the prize organisers shows, there’s widespread support for new garden cities in principle. But we know that the real challenges to getting support for development materialise when an actual location is pinpointed. That’s why – uniquely among the five short listed entries – we’ve based our model on a real place: the Hoo peninsula in Medway. We’ve done this to test our ideas on the real world – and because we think this is one place where a new garden city is needed and could really work. Like most of the south east, Medway is in urgent need of more affordable homes: only 14 in 100 homes for sale are currently affordable to local people in average wages.
Our proposal is here, including outline master plans and financial modelling. We’ve proposed a balanced mix of tenures – one third social, plus shared ownership, retirement homes, and opportunities for self builders. We’d market lots of the homes for sale at below current market prices, so that a 2 bed could be under £100,000. By reinstating passenger services on an existing freight train line our town would be 45 minutes from the jobs of central London – though we’re also designing plenty of local employment space too. Buses and a new ferry service would link to the existing Medway towns. And of course we’ve planned for schools, healthcare, green space and retail, to improve services for the existing community as well as new residents.
But we recognise that we need to do more than this to win the support of local people – one of the key criteria for the competition. So we’ve designed an innovative investment model that gives local people preferential opportunities to invest in the project and share in the financial benefits. A £1000 investment is projected to grow to £8,250 over the development phase, giving local people a stake in he success of our town. We’ve also designed a Community Trust that will retain ownership of much of the property assets, yielding an income stream to support local services above and beyond what would normally be economically viable. This is the model that enables Letchworth Garden City to fund a cinema and a hospital that no other town of its size can support.
Our model can afford to do all this because it channels the economic gains from development into improved quality and affordability, not increased profits. Properly organised, there’s enough value to be made from development to give landowners a reasonable return and provide all the benefits we propose. Sadly our current house building system doesn’t realise all this potential: we’ve ended up with a model that pays too much for land, and then has to eke out supply to keep sale prices up.
Of course, our entry is not a planning application, and making it a reality will require the support of national and local politicians.
We think our proposal constitutes an exciting vision for a great new place – but more importantly it demonstrates that building the homes we need is possible with the right innovation and political will. Now we need politicians to listen, and make it happen.