How to actually deliver a new garden city

As one of the five finalists for the Wolfson Economics Prize (the second biggest economics prize in the world after Nobel), Shelter’s final submission for the prize has now been published.

We were delighted to be selected as one of the finalists in June and have since built on our initial submission to show how a new garden city could be visionary, viable without government subsidy and popular with local people.

We entered the prize because it presented a unique opportunity to show how our proposals for increasing the supply of new homes could work in practice. So our submission focusses on a real location – the Hoo Peninsula in Medway – and engages directly with the unique opportunities and challenges of the site.

We worked with local people to establish how we could make the development of the garden city work for them. And we based our financial modelling on the actual infrastructural, environmental and economic character of the location, to be sure that the garden city would be viable.

By doing this we have developed a plan that is not just theoretical, but a model that is ready to go.

Popular with local people

There will always be voices that oppose new development and there is a danger that sometimes they are the ones that shout the loudest and the only ones that get heard. Our submission is built around the principle that – ultimately – everyone should have an equal say on whether a new garden city should be built in their local area, by putting it to a vote in a local referendum.

In order to find out how we could win support for a new garden city in Medway in a referendum we worked with local people in a series of focus groups, in depth phone calls and a Citizens Jury (all kindly sponsored by Legal & General and run by BritainThinks) to understand their hopes for the area and potential concerns about new development.

We found that, people dislike the idea of any incentive that could be interpreted as a cash bribe, so for example a £5000 cash payment would not make people more likely to support our garden city. However, financial incentives that were perceived as compensation for disruption (like council tax rebates or energy bills savings) are more popular.

Even more likely to persuade people to support the garden city, though, were the non-cash benefits of the development: the new jobs that it would create, the new infrastructure that it would deliver and – crucially – the new affordable homes that would be built. However, that message must be delivered to people in a targeted and credible way. It’s not good enough just to sit back and let the design speak for itself.

Viable without government subsidy

Creating a proposal that could be delivered without public subsidy is one of the Wolfson prize’s key criteria. In order to ensure that our proposal would be viable without subsidy we partnered with architects PRP and received vital support from KPMG, Laing O’Rourke and Legal & General.

With their expertise we developed a new investment model that would bring in private sector investment and release land for the development at lower values by inviting the existing land owners to invest their land into the scheme as well. By investing their land the return they would receive would be dependent upon the continued success of the garden city, incentivising their long-term commitment to it.

We set out how we would drive rapid build out of the site, seeing homes built at 4.5 times the national average rate, to ensure that the garden city would help contribute to solving the housing shortage as soon as possible and deliver returns to investors sooner.

But the long-term viability of a new settlement depends on a lot more than how it will be paid for. It depends upon making sure that the community itself will be economically viable for the long term, by ensuring that people will have access to jobs. That’s why our submission focusses on the creation of transport infrastructure, to tie Stoke Harbour to other regional economies (including 45 minutes to Kings Cross), and includes the creation of 10,500 jobs in the town itself and a new off-site construction factory built on brownfield land.

Building more homes is absolutely essential if we are to tackle England’s housing shortage, bring down the cost of housing and reduce homelessness. Shelter are committed to prove that this is not only something that will be good for our communities, but can also be good for the national economy. We’re determined to show that it is not only something that can be imagined in theory, but can also be delivered in practice.

Whatever the outcome of the Wolfson prize, we believe that we’ve shown that this is something that can be done.