Garden city or urban extensions?

With all this talk about garden cities, new towns and urban extensions it almost seems like we are coming to some kind of consensus in terms of future house building and how to increase the supply of new homes in the UK. But will it actually come to anything? In previous years we have had promises of eco-towns and urban extensions, with few actually developed in the areas where housing need is greatest and we’ve had politicians promising to address the housing crisis, but policies have fallen well short. But just imagine that some of this actually comes to fruition and proposals for garden cities, besides Ebbsfleet, are actually put forward, and a whole host of urban extensions to existing conurbations are not just proposed but actually planned and developed. The question this raises for me is what does it mean here in Bristol and how will we respond?

In the recent past we have had proposals for urban extensions to Bristol, mostly resisted and removed from plans once the regional/national housing targets were abolished, but to my knowledge there has been little if any consideration of the notion of a new garden city in the area. If we accept there is a housing need locally, and few would dispute this, and we accept that not everyone wants to live in high density inner city areas, then what are the best options for accommodating the Bristol city-region’s housing need? And let’s dispel the myth that all the housing we need in the city region can be accommodated on brownfield land – it can’t. That may be true for the next 5-10 years but is pretty unlikely beyond that and planning for larger scale development takes time so needs to start now, not when we run out of other options.

Has there been any detailed work in recent years to consider the idea of a new town or garden city and would any of our local councils be brave enough to come forward with such proposals now? Would 2-3 extensions to the existing urban area be a better option? These are questions that we may well find ourselves forced to address over the next 10 years, as plans for jobs growth in the sub region continue there needs to be some serious consideration of how to accommodate the growth in new homes that this will generate (as well as addressing an existing backlog).

These are some of the issues the Lyons Review of Housing is considering as reported in The Guardian recently. One of the interesting points to come out of the review so far is this notion of communities having a say in planning but not the right of veto – an important distinction and one that councils and communities seem to forget. All too often local councils are afraid to propose new housebuilding and are resistant to change because of the strength of local opposition. The blame for lack of development then gets attributed to the planning system, when really it is down to politics. Until we can get a better balance between opposition to plans and the need for new homes, then the housing crisis will continue and councils will continue to shy away from proper planning for housing.

So, should we be considering a garden city and/or urban extensions, both have their merits and their problems. To some extent urban extensions are obvious where there are opportunities close to existing centres, where infrastructure is already in place and transport connections available. Garden cities provide the opportunity to start afresh, to provide sustainable communities through proper planning – an exciting opportunity if carefully located and if land assembly and ownership is sensibly organised. Here we need to take note of David Lock’s warnings about the failure of eco-towns and the potential barriers to the development of garden cities. We need to sort out the planning permission and land assembly in a different way to how most developments currently work, otherwise we will surely fail.

Its an exciting and challenging time to be a planner with an interest in housing, there are so many opportunities and innovative ideas out there that could make a difference, but will we embrace them? I’d like to think that with an Elected Mayor and a forward thinking Local Enterprise Partnership, Bristol could really lead the way on some of this. However, too often local ambitions are dampened down by the surrounding authorities and an overwhelming desire to protect and preserve, whilst ignoring the hardship and need this perpetuates. Those that have, protect what they have very successfully, whilst those that don’t have just struggle on through the daily grind.

The solution is to be brave and have a vision, and to hold on to that vision when the going gets tough – something the Bristol Mayor seems to be good at, so maybe there is hope after all? It’s also about taking people on the journey with you, a difficult one when it comes to new housing, but somehow we have to break the mould of resistance and turn it into acceptance and support – that is undoubtedly where our biggest challenge lies, in changing hearts and minds in North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. Is this a role for the LEP or the Mayor, or just maybe a bigger role for the nation state, for government intervention to make it happen? No doubt the run up to the 2015 general election will give us some clues on this as different political groups define their agendas and manifestos, but whatever happens, housing and planning seem set to remain as a key issue on the political agenda for some time to come.

The Problem with Housing Policy: Part 2

DSCN0285What’s missing in UK housing policy and housing supply is clear and relatively simple – voice and choice. Those on the margins most affected by lack of delivery and supply rarely have a voice in decisions taken around housing policy and most of us have little choice in the form of supply available to us.

There are a whole host of statistics bandied around to illustrate the scale of the problem, but one that caught my attention was that the average time needed to save for a deposit is now 22 years compared to just 3 years back in 1997 – wow! now that is depressing!

Emma Reynolds, shadow Housing Minister, said in a recent speech that this is an “important moment for housing”, I would go further and argue that this is a critical moment for housing in the UK. Which, if we make the wrong choices now could see devastating long term social consequences for many. Now’s the time for politicians and policy makers to be bold, to plan long term and make those unpopular and difficult decisions – not something that comes naturally to many perhaps?

A good start, potentially, is the Labour Party decision to set up an Independent Housing Commission, chaired by Sir Michael Lyons. The remit of the Commission is to look at the changes needed to housing and planning policies and practice in order to deliver more homes, pretty wide ranging in many respects, but also quite narrow in others. What stops us building enough homes is not just about housing and planning policies; it’s about competition, land values and land markets, community resistance, lack of political will, inherent conservatism etc. the list goes on and at the heart of it maybe it’s also about deep-seated cultural and behavioural aspects. The need for housing has moved from a basic human need for shelter to one that sees housing as a commodity and an investment for the future. This in itself reinforces the need for house prices to rise or at least remain stable, so people can see a return on their investment, which in turn skews how we see the economics of the situation and the decisions we then make about housing policy.

So what’s the solution and what will come out of the Lyons Housing Commission? The questions/issues it sets out to address, do on the surface, to a non expert like  myself, seem pretty sensible and useful:

  • unlocking land for housing development
  • investment in housing and associated infrastructure
  • role of new towns and garden cities
  • the right to grow
  • share the benefits of development

For me, one of the biggest issues within this debate is the issue of the land value change created by the granting of planning permission – something successive governments have wrestled with ever since the introduction of the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act. I leave others far more qualified than I to talk about this in detail, but it seems to me that we never quite manage to get it right. We don’t seem capable of extracting enough value back to the community purse to enable us to provide appropriate and necessary infrastructure or to invest in enough affordable homes to meet demand, simple as that! So a state introduced form of regulation provides fantastic opportunities for private landowners to generate significant wealth for themselves, whilst putting little back into the communities and areas they are affecting, not exactly a philosophy I am comfortable with. But a massive issue for the Lyons Review to address if we are to crack this problem once and for all – although I’m not sure I’ll hold my breath on that one.

The issue of cities and their hinterlands is also an interesting one. The Lyons Review documentation talks about the relationship between neighbouring councils and a city’s right to grow, and how we provide the incentives for growth outside of tight city boundaries. This is a big issue, which plays out rather painfully in the Bristol area, with the city boundary currently drawn so that any space for real expansion to meet the growth demands of the city is only possible within neighbouring authorities who are consistently resistant to housing growth. There’s an obvious answer to this one, if cities are the centre of our growth strategy for the UK and play such an important role in producing GDP and GVA growth, then allow them the control over their own ability to grow. Redraw the boundaries and give places like Bristol space to grow, without the need to cajole, negotiate, liaise, discuss, persuade, and argue with other surrounding councils, who quite frankly are never going to agree! Give cities control over their own hinterland.

I like the idea of a new wave of garden cities and new towns, I’m a big fan of the concept personally. The issue here though, as with many aspects of the housing supply debate, is about location, location, location. As soon as you start talking about lines on maps, plots of land and possible locations, all the negatives start coming out, all the resistance begins. So we can talk about it in the abstract and many people will agree the concepts, politicians will sign up to the idea, as they are at the moment. But as soon as that first notion of where one might be built is in the public domain or even first mooted, everyone begins to have second thoughts, politicians get nervous, the anti-protest begins. If we rely on localism and community buy-in, we will never deliver a new town or garden city again, it just won’t happen. Politicians will need to be brave and risk upsetting a few people if they want to build bold new projects, HS2 is a prime example of that, if the need is there and there are clear benefits to more people then difficult and unpopular decisions will need to be taken.

Some would argue that actually what we need to solve the crisis is more of a bottom up approach rather than greater controls and imposition by government. That is, the people and communities most disadvantaged by the lack of affordable housing need to be encouraged and enabled to find solutions for themselves. They need to understand the full range of choices that could be available with the right encouragement and the right financial, land and legislative framework. That includes self build, custom build, co-housing schemes and  community land trusts as very real options for increasing our housing supply. We seem a world away from this at the moment.

It will be interesting to see just how much comment and feedback the Lyons Review gets from non-vested interests, people outside of the housing and planning professions or building industries. At the moment I’d be surprised if many people had actually heard about it, let alone considered responding to it.

I’d like to see both a top down and bottom up approach combined, that brings together the best of what’s happening elsewhere in Europe and the world, that provides both voice and choice to people in their housing decisions. Interesting times indeed for housing policy, but will we rise to the challenge?