New year, new start for garden town initiatives?
Many of us woke up from sleeping off our New Year hangovers with the first bit of good news of 2017 that the Government was investing £2.3 billion in new garden towns and garden villages. At first glance it seemed the Government was finally stepping in with an interventionist approach to try and kick start the housing industry into action. But the announcement was curiously lacking in detail. Are they relaunching the old initiative that brought us the garden towns of Welwyn Garden City and Milton Keynes? Is it going to make a real difference? Is this the new year gift from Government that we wanted and need?
It must have been a slow news day as the story was covered across national and regional press and the Huffington Post news story was retweeted across the world. But what does it mean and what is actually going to happen? Are we going to see more development off the back of it or is it the same funding recycled? Will there actually be new garden towns or will this be just green wash making the same old housing a bit more palatable for politicians and local residents.
The truth is we simply don’t know yet.
As I live and work in the South West, I was very excited by the newly announced garden village of Culm in Mid Devon and the new garden town status for Taunton.
I have searched for information on the Culm Garden Village and there seems to be very little detail on it. However, it appears to be the same development that Mid Devon have been debating and soul searching on for many years. The first real foray at junction 28 to cross the motorway and the place where they truly have placed all their eggs in one basket and identified a single location for around 3,000 dwellings. So is it new innovative development or is it just Mid Devon placing the latest fashionable badge on something they would have done anyway? At Culm then we await the opportunity to be wowed!
Looking closer to home, Taunton also gained garden town status. Thankfully there is more information on this and anorak policy spotters like me have been able to review the expression of interest online.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to actually be any new development planned. The ‘garden’ element for Taunton appears to be a green wash over the various developments in Taunton which are already planned, consented or even built. Whilst this appears to be a curious take on the garden town concept and could be considered as simply papering over the cracks to rectify mistakes or missed opportunities, I think instead Taunton have used the Garden Towns initiative to relaunch the town with a green badge. They seem to be seeking a way to help the delivery of sites which have not come forward quickly enough, and meet the actual housing need.
Taunton, the county town of Somerset, has recently lost its identity. The market has gone, the town centre has been struggling and many of the major developments have been stuttering along. The Garden Town status for Taunton allows it to plan holistically and strategically, in a green way, the infrastructure to support development and to relaunch the town rather than just build new development around the outskirts.
Integrated infrastructure delivery to make sure that the existing town also benefits and it is all joined up is critical of any new development. And infrastructure not just in the purist engineer's term of new roads and junctions but also green infrastructure making use of the river frontage and green corridors.
All these things are linked – new development brings new money and new opportunity. The Garden Town badge could allow for new opportunities, new funding and/or joined up delivery to kick start development.
We’ve seen this in action at Ebbsfleet where we have been engaged in the garden city project for over 25 years, providing a range of multidisciplinary services to support the development. Government can use their current experiences and their aspirations for Ebbsfleet Garden City as a working example of the need to deliver planned, integrated and investible infrastructure at the pace required in order to deliver growing housing needs.
Our experience at Ebbsfleet shows how critical it is to have a regional and local infrastructure strategy in place at an early stage. Only a strategy that considers infrastructure delivery as a coherent single approach will enable development to proceed at pace.
We await the outcome of all of the identified garden city locations with interest. Green wash or a green opportunity, the vision could be there but the proof as ever will be in the actual delivery. Sustainable growth cannot happen without investment in infrastructure.