How to make new garden cities actually happen

Building a new generation of garden cities is in danger of becoming a motherhood and apple pie policy: everyone agrees it’s a great idea, but no-one has any real plans for making it happen. It’s not hard to see why. Building more homes is pretty much universally recognised as essential, and garden cities are a simple, readily understood way of getting it done – contrasting favourably with more complex and contested proposals like estate regeneration, green belt release or densifying existing suburbs. And garden cities have nice ring to them, emphasising the importance of green space and liveable neighbourhoods, and harking back to past successes like the building of Letchworth Garden City.

To be clear, garden cities are not ‘the answer’ to the housing shortage – because there is no single solution. The need for more homes is so acute that we need to action across the board, to build more homes in all tenures and in all regions. Shelter and KPMG have mapped out a comprehensive plan for the next government to do just that – and a new generation of garden cities are an important part of that mix.

The problem, of course, lies in choosing the locations. Any actual proposal to site a new garden city risks fanning fears of ‘concreting over the countryside’ and of generating concerted opposition from local NIMBYs and interest groups. It’s a classic co-ordination problem: the benefits of building more homes are diffused across the population, while the opponents are concentrated and mobilised. It only makes it worse that many of the obvious locations are in swing seats or those with strong NIMBY tendencies. So it’s hardly surprising that, with a finely balanced election looming, politicians have shied away from actually naming places for new settlements.

Last year’s Wolfson Economics Prize brought this dilemma to life. Shelter’s proposal for a new garden city in Medway was the runner-up, while the winning entry from URBED proposed a major expansion of Oxford. While almost all commentators agreed with the prinicples of the prize competition – that new garden cities must be visionary, economically viable and locally popular –picking actual locations engendered some pretty trenchant opposition, including from the housing minister himself.

To break this political logjam, the five Wolfson Finalists are calling for a Royal Commission to be appointed, with a clear mandate and a strict time limit to identify the best locations for new garden cities. Our joint report argues that only a politically neutral, independent body can balance the competing views of different interest groups to pick the best places for the country as whole – in the form of urban extensions, garden suburbs or whole new settlements.

Once the right locations have been identified, powerful delivery agencies should be created to lead the development process. These could be public sector development corporations (like those that built the New Towns), public-private partnerships, or city authorities themselves. But whatever model is right for each garden city, it will need to be able to acquire land quickly at reasonable prices: without this ability, the danger is that vested interests will hold up progress and that speculative market pressures will extract the huge value that new development creates. That value needs to be internalised in garden cities themselves, to pay for infrastructure, affordable homes and to give local people the services and additional benefits that they deserve.

Getting land into garden cities at reasonable prices will mean reforming the law on compulsory purchase, to incentivise landowners to invest their assets for the long term rather than holding out for maximum cash payments.

These are simple, practical steps that the next government could easily take. Encouragingly, the government is already conducting a review of compulsory purchase rules: we now need all political parties to commit to making garden cities a reality.