Can new towns solve the housing crisis?

Fourteen ‘garden villages’ and three new towns are to be built as part of the Government’s ongoing attempts to alleviate the housing crisis. Almost 50,000 new homes will be created in the villages, alongside approximately 150,000 new dwellings in the towns.

village, map, new towns, houses

Funding is to be provided to support delivery, comprising £6m for the villages and £1.4m for the new towns over the next two years. Local communities will bid for a share, with the Government’s press release explaining this money “will be used to unlock the full capacity of sites, providing funding for additional resources and expertise to accelerate development and avoid delays”. In addition, new garden projects may access other infrastructure funding – such as the recent £2.3bn Housing Infrastructure Fund. This, at least, makes the new towns and villages appear more commercially and economically feasible than previous comparable schemes.

New towns not new ideas

Large-scale garden developments are not entirely novel, having a history dating back to the 1890s and attempts to provide alternatives to industrial slums. However, the new villages are arguably the first of their kind. These are smaller in scale, with 1,500-10,000 homes each and built outside existing settlements. Aiming to reduce concerns about urban sprawl and big schemes subsuming existing towns, they will turn small hamlets into larger communities.

The villages are to be spread cross the country, with locations including Spitalgate Heath (Lincolnshire) and Long Marston (Stratford-on-Avon). The three new towns – to be alongside Aylesbury, Taunton and Harlow & Gilston – will be larger and comprise more than 10,000 houses each. Both development-types are to have green spaces, strong transport links, a sense of community and good-quality affordable homes at their heart.

This comes despite similar schemes having previously been halted due to concerns about loss of valuable green-belt land. For instance, in 2016, the Ebbsfleet Garden City project was stalled following local opposition. Housing Minister, Gavin Barwell, has stated: “Locally-led garden towns and villages have enormous potential to deliver the homes that communities need. New communities not only deliver homes, they also bring new jobs and facilities”.

Yet when some schemes will create new and distinct settlements in their own right, rather than simply extending existing urban areas, it seems inevitable that green space will be lost.

The legal landscape

The relevant areas will also need policy protection from other speculative planning applications in the future, to avoid small hamlets becoming overwhelmed. Such developments will probably encounter strong local resistance and difficulties in overcoming planning hurdles. On the other hand, the schemes offer welcome opportunities for landowners, residential developers and the construction industry – sectors that have experienced some ‘slow-down’ in the aftermath of Brexit. Once created, new communities also have the potential to boost employment opportunities and economic activity.

If interest in garden schemes is high, the Department for Communities & Local Government are expected to make another call for expressions of interest from places with similar proposals later this year. With the press release regarding new towns and villages being the Prime Minister’s first announcement for 2017, it seems housing is a main Government priority for the future.

Publication of a proposed Housing White Paper, outlining “a comprehensive package of reform to increase housing supply and halt the decline in housing affordability”, has been delayed, however. Commentators agree there is no ‘silver bullet’ to tackle the long-term under-supply and shortage of housing. Whether this ‘garden’ vision can help and be delivered in practice will remain to be seen.

Philippa PlumtreeVarley is an associate at Walker Morris

The Government’s Housing Aims in a Nutshell 

  • To build 1 million new homes by 2020, with a £5bn fund pledged to “solve” the housing crisis.
  • 200,000 of the new homes to be “decent, well-built homes with gardens” and sold at 20 per cent discount to first-time buyers, between the ages of 23 and 40.
  • Restrict re-sale and pricing of these Starter Homes to ensure they remain affordable and available to those in need.
  • Directly commission building of homes on publicly-owned land.
  • Alter planning rules to ensure schemes can be delivered quickly and viably, plus encourage more building on brownfield sites.
  • Encourage and support more small and medium-sized building firms into a market currently dominated by a few large companies.
  • Give housing association tenants the right-to-buy their home and encourage social housing providers to reduce rent levels.