Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The mystery of the missing garden city principles

Garden cities. Who doesn’t like garden cities? Or garden towns? Garden villages maybe? The same thing, but smaller and smaller again. Garden cities are the town planning equivalent of a Sunday evening television programme in which the star of a sitcom from days-gone-by, travelling by something slow and quaint, explores the part of Britain that you holidayed in as a child. Garden cities are comfortable, reassuring and unthreatening, and hark back to a time when public policy was informed by a sense of social justice.

Politically, as a result, it should not be possible to lose with garden cities. Free childcare, less bureaucracy for the brave bobbies on the beat, and a new generation of garden towns and villages. Sensible policies for a happier Britain. How could that not poll well in a pre-election focus group? A majority surely beckons.

Uh oh! The unelected quangocrats at the Planning Inspectorate are going to find the our local plan unsound if we don’t allocate another 4000 homes. No problem! Some speculative developers were threatening to JR the plan anyway so let’s just allocate a garden village on the former airfield that they have been promoting! Disaster averted. Control of the Council retained.

Everybody wins with garden cities.

It is a more than a little surprising, therefore, that reference to garden city principles has been dropped from the revised draft of the NPPF.

Paragraph 52 of the NPPF currently says that: 

“The supply of new homes can sometimes be best achieved through planning for larger scale development, such as new settlements or extensions to existing villages and towns that follow the principles of Garden Cities. Working with the support of their communities, local planning authorities should consider whether such opportunities provide the best way of achieving sustainable development."

Paragraph 73 of the draft revision says that: 

The supply of large numbers of new homes can often be best achieved through planning for larger scale development, such as new settlements or significant extensions to existing villages and towns. Working with the support of their communities, and other authorities if appropriate, strategic plan-making authorities should identify suitable opportunities for such development where this can help to meet identified needs in a sustainable way.

The omission prompted a statement from the TCPA and 63 others (including councils, professional bodies, trade associations, charities, planning consultancies, architects and developers) that expressed concern about the possible implications.

In response an MHCLH spokesman told Planning Resource that:

"Ministers have been clear that garden towns and villages remain a vital tool to delivering the transformational housing growth this country needs. "We have already backed 24 new garden cities, towns and villages which have the potential to create 220,000 new homes and are committed to supporting the introduction of more."

That is not much of an explanation and actually begs the question, if garden towns and villages are so vital and if the government is so committed to supporting more, why remove their reference in the nation’s planning policy framework?

Perhaps the government thinks that the principles of high quality design, walkable neighbourhoods, and so on, should underpin all forms of new development. It is fair to say that design has been given greater prominence and emphasis in the proposed revisions, but there would be no harm in retaining garden city principles as a benchmark for the quality of major residential developments.

Perhaps the government does not actually want any more garden town or village proposals because of the public funding implications. Perhaps sufficient funding has been secured for the quick(ish) wins that might offer a political payback before the next general election and that any further discussions with the Treasury or Homes England about budgets for more can wait until the next Parliament. Such short-sightedness cannot be ruled out, but why remove the garden cities reference all together?

Perhaps the government has come to the view that without any desire on it’s part to lead for the nation on the development of what planners would see as true garden cities in the mould of Letchworth and Welwyn that it is disingenuous for the principles to be included in the nation’s planning policy framework.

As you can tell by my tone, it is easy to be cynical about the most recent ‘wave’ of garden towns and villages. Many are long-standing local plan commitments that provide no additionality in so far as boosting the overall supply of housing is concerned. Most adopt something of buffet-style approach to the garden city principles and you are more likely to see references to comprehensive green infrastructure networks in promotional and marketing material than you are commitments to community ownership of land and long-term stewardship of assets. Many of the ‘wave’ might not actually be the most sustainable form of development when weighed against other reasonable alternatives, but it might be politically expedient to pursue the ‘all-eggs-in-one basket’ spatial strategy and direct development to the most uncontentious part of a district.

Oh yes, it is easy to be cynical, but it is also the case that the scale of new settlement development is more likely to facilitate a commensurate scale of infrastructure provision than smaller-scale development and more dispersed spatial strategies. It is also case that whilst they might never be (and arguably never can be) wholly locally-led, the path that leads to less resistance from the public is also the path that leads to faster local plan adoption.

Beyond the politics and the cynicism though the garden city principles did at least point to some of the outcomes that planners and the planning system should be trying to achieve. When faced with promoters who might want to adopt a buffet-style approach to incorporating garden city principles a LPA might previously have felt emboldened to push for something special knowing that government policy supported them. With no reference now at all it could be demotivating for the LPAs that are contemplating or already proposing such projects to see explicit government support dropped.

The omission is peculiar one because it is hard to see who benefits from it. Nothing is gained, but something is lost, which is a bit like the Conservatives at the 2017 general election. Interestingly garden cities were not mentioned in their manifesto. A majority would surely have beckoned.

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