Why Government Plans to Revive the Garden City Tradition Are Welcome

January 3, 2017

The Government’s announcement that it is to go ahead with plans to create 48,000 new homes as part of its commitment to revive the tradition of garden city development is welcome. Policy Exchange has argued in several papers that garden villages are part of the solution to Britain’s long-standing housing challenges. The concept of the garden city is a specifically British innovation, contributing to planning and the creation of attractive and sustainable residential environments. Sir Ebenezer Howard’s original ideas were rooted in the revival of the English vernacular tradition in art and design, and the broader Arts and Crafts movement.

It is an aesthetic that became the subject of cruel caricature throughout much of the 20th century, perhaps best and most entertainingly lampooned by Sir Osbert Lancaster in From Pillar to Post in 1933. Yet this vernacular tradition, despised by so many arbiters of taste in design, turned out to provide homes of enduring appeal. A semi-detached house with a drive, a garden, a bit of exposed mock-Tudor woodwork, and a decorative brick chimney has become one of the most sought-after homes for families across the country.

The original concept of the garden city was different from the garden suburb. The city was intended to be a self-contained economic unit: an attractive residential and commercial setting in a garden environment, surrounded by its own green belt. The suburb was essentially a green, residential setting for people commuting to work elsewhere.

The Government’s proposal picks up on thinking that Policy Exchange has encouraged and nurtured for a long period. We have wanted to encourage new building and development that provides individuals and families with the sort of homes that they would choose. We recognise that these may not be designs for new homes that will win prizes for novelty, but, more importantly, they will give people what they want.

Britain has a big housing challenge. To be more specific, it has several housing challenges. The first is that there are just not enough houses being built; there is a lack of supply. This makes houses expensive for people, whether they are buying or renting them. At the heart of this lack of supply is a complex planning system, which makes development slow and expensive. It effectively limits the amount of land where building is permitted. This makes house building expensive, whether the homes are being built for the private sector, or by the public sector for social landlords of one sort or another.

As well as these challenges, there are those arising from the planning system, and those that go beyond it, in terms of the quality and character of the homes that are being constructed. Given that building land is very expensive, lots are small. Family homes with three or four bedrooms are often poky: the front door opens into the main living room, there is little storage space, and parking on a drive or on the road outside is a nightmare. The quality of recently-built homes is also often disappointing. There have been rafts of regulation to improve insulation and to ensure that electrics are safer, yet the basic regulation of building control — the process of ensuring that what has been put up has been built properly — is poorly carried out.

Policy Exchange has been attracted to the garden city concept because we are concerned with the building of homes and communities that are liveable for people in a straight forward and uncomplicated way. We want to see improvements in the quality of design, the sense of space, and the basic workmanship. Having pioneered the concept of the sustainable garden city, Britain exported the idea to America, and to large parts of the British Commonwealth, from Australia to India and South Africa. The Government is right to run with ideas that flow from the garden city tradition, not least because the concept always embraced the concept of a community supported by a full range of infrastructure. It was never just about a collection of houses in a garden landscape.

Policy Exchange recognises that, as well as specific questions relating to the planning system, housing supply is also potentially constrained by other factors, including: the competitive structure of the house-building sector; the lack of construction and building skills that raise big questions about the further-education sector and the provision of skills and training; and, since the credit crunch and Great Recession, a banking system that may not in the future be able to support private-sector housing finance in the way it once did.

In the year ahead, we have a full research agenda, which is intended to get a better purchase on all of these questions. Policy Exchange is a ‘full-service’ think tank, whch benefits from units focusing on the arts, demography, education, energy, housing, and economic and social policy. We are well placed to explore the full range of dimensions that should shape Britain’s future housing debate.

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