It's hardly news to say that there is a housing crisis in the UK. Too much demand coupled with perpetually inadequate supply has put prices in the UK into orbit, up by over 250% since 1997. It’s estimated that something like 250,000 new homes would have to be built annually to meet the current shortfall – about five times current levels.
As a result getting on the property ladder is an increasingly distant dream for ‘generation rent’. (Not to mention the damage done to the economy by having so much capital tied up in bricks and mortar. As I wrote in this piece a year ago, for every pound lent to a manufacturing business in the UK, £35 is lent to someone buying a house).
But the fact that housing minister Gavin Barwell has noticed and seems to be doing something about it, is new. He's announced today that the go-ahead has been given to no fewer than 14 new Garden Villages, providing up to 48,000 new homes all over the country.
Sounds like some belated good news for all those 20 and 30-somethings who want to buy but just can’t scrape up the dosh at the same time as paying their exorbitant rents.
From that point of view, swapping a scrofulous flat where you are keeping some silver-topped Buy-to-Let landlord in cruising holidays, for your very own 3 bed semi- in bucolic-sounding Dunton Hills, Longcross or Welbourne looks like a pretty good deal (see below for the full list of locations). Even Kate Barker, whose much praised but often ignored Housing Review called for accelerated building programmes way back in 2005, has called it ‘a step in the right direction.’
But as always with such noisy proclamations, the devil is in the detail. The developments – a Garden Village is apparently defined as comprising up to 1,500 homes, a Garden Town up to 10,000 – are large. To appease the nimby’s who clog up the planning system with objections to building in existing locations, they will be largely self-contained and in greenfield sites, where they will not benefit very much from existing amenities.
They will need, in other words, their own dedicated infrastructure. Railway stations or tram stops, bus services, shops, schools and doctors. None of which come cheap - it will require plenty of ‘encouragement’ to get the property developers and house builders who are to construct them to make decent provisions for these pricey facilities out of land that could otherwise take profitable housing.
How much is the government willing to stump up by way of support? A measly £6m, shared between all 14. So the new villages may have gardens but they are unlikely to have much else in the way of amenities. What they will have of course is lots of cars, adding yet more to congestion and pollution problems that are already getting out of hand.
This is all OK however because the developments, says Barwell, are to be ‘locally led’. Sounds great, devolution, more power to the regions and all that. But such weasel words hide the truth that what ‘locally led’ actually means is more like ‘you’re on your own, so don’t come running to Westminster for more cash.’ But without Westminster involvement the prospects for those vital new transport links, hospitals and schools are dim.
Then there are the problems with the whole ‘Garden’ concept itself. Garden Cities date back over a century (Letchworth in Hertfordshire was the first) and were a peculiarly English and reactionary approach to town planning even then. Designed for a time when the horse and cart ruled the roads and almost everyone walked to work, it appeals to a ‘Roses around the doorway’ kind of rural dream but in reality is ill-suited to the current trend towards smaller households and the heterogenous and often far-flung nature of 21st Century employment.
In a world where the most intense pressure on existing housing stock is in urban areas, it might be more sensible to try and work out ways of building more satisfactory and affordable larger dwellings within striking distance of city centres. But that would require proper central government involvement, lots of hard thinking and, perhaps least palatable of all in post-Brexit Britain, a hefty dose of political risk for those whose names were on the projects.
So we are left with the current proposals as an ‘Imperfect, but at least possible’ Hobson’s choice. At best this reflects a kind of weary pragmatism in Whitehall toward a problem the severity of which really demands a much more energetic response.
At worst it suggests cynical spin, a tacit acknowledgement that beneath the warm beer and cricket clichés these new Garden Villages will be nothing of the sort, merely the same old dismal and under-serviced housing estates that we have all grown only too familiar with already, only this time on a much larger scale. Let us hope there is more to it than that.
Where they will be – the locations of the first 14 Garden Villages
- Long Marston in Stratford-upon-Avon
- Oxfordshire Cotswolds
- Deenethorpe in Northamptonshire
- Culm in Devon
- Welborne in Hampshire
- West Carclaze in Cornwall
- Dunton Hills in Essex
- Spitalgate Heath in Lincolnshire
- Halsnead in Merseyside
- Longcross in Surrey
- Bailrigg in Lancaster
- Infinity Garden Village in Derbyshire
- St Cuthberts in Cumbria
- Handforth in Cheshire