3 tests for Bicester Garden Town

Over the last few years a huge momentum has built up behind the idea of building a new generation of garden cities. Political and business leaders have backed them, with Nick Clegg, for example, having argued for a “new generation” of ten garden cities. Today, the government made its pitch for a new 13,000 home “garden town” at Bicester in Oxfordshire.

The proposal itself is too small to be a garden city in its own right. It even fails the government’s own criteria from its Garden City Prospectus which said that new proposals should be “at or above” 15,000 new homes. The 13,000 homes figure in the press today probably includes the 6,000 home NW Bicester eco-town which is already under construction, and several other large sites that are already in the local plan, so it’s not clear that this announcement heralds entirely new homes at all. Still, giving existing schemes some funding for infrastructure and some much-needed political support from central government can only help give the growth of Bicester some oomph.

Everyone is clear that one or two “garden towns” will not be a silver bullet to solve the housing shortage. We need a comprehensive plan (like this one) to build at least five new garden cities, as well as much more urban and brownfield redevelopment and sustainable urban extensions to our most successful cities.

That said, Bicester is a proposal that we want to see succeed. To do so, we would argue that it needs to meet three tests:

  • It must have a genuine mix of homes: social rent, intermediate and market. To be a successful place, any new garden town, city or suburb must be able to provide homes for people on a range of incomes and at different points in their lives. We need to see social rented homes, shared ownership homes and market homes, in a range of different sizes and types. Making this stack up financially without government subsidy requires using innovative land financing, as we showed in our prize-winning entry to the Wolfson Economics Prize this year.
  • It must be ambitious in the pace and scale of building. There are plenty of examples in England of large sites which are taking decades to develop. The government’s other “garden city” at Ebbsfleet is a case in point. For Bicester to be a success it needs to break free from the broken development model we have in England and look to more successful European examples of building high quality homes quickly.
  • It must benefit the existing community, not just the new one. In our proposal to the Wolfson Economics Prize we designed a new garden city in Medway. Along with researchers from BritainThinks and YouGov, we spoke extensively to local people to understand what would motivate them to support a new garden city in their area. By far and away the most important thing was local people knowing that the services, jobs and homes created would benefit them and their family, not just the new residents. In other words, a big new urban extension for Bicester must provide additional health and education services, better public green spaces and homes and jobs that can be accessed by local people if it is to be supported long term.

There is increasingly bold rhetoric from all sides of politics about solving the housing shortage. As well as Bicester, the government is today introducing the idea of it becoming a major commissioner of homes once again. Whoever forms the government next May must put together a truly comprehensive plan to tie all these elements together and get us building the homes we so desperately need.