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Reflections on urban hells and garden cities

Welwyn Garden City - The garden city movement is moving again.

Can compulsory purchase provide a route to large-scale garden city development? Dalia Lichfield argues in favour of CPOs

The RTPI London seminar, hosted by UCL, on The Garden City Model – A Panacea to London’s 21st Century Housing Challenge, was a very welcome initiative - both the topic, the speakers and the participatory format were interesting and well presented, and –  equally important – instigated further questions.
Professor Michael Edwards of UCL provided an incisive analysis of the housing problems in London – the inability to provide the number of new dwellings committed in the London Plan, which in itself fell short of the forecast needs; the resultant rise in house prices that are out of reach for an increasing number of households, and the deplorable deterioration of living standards, to which one should add local councils’ costs of housing rent subsidies, and the social consequences and costs of poor living conditions.

But Michael's end note was a most significant question: Can we really build garden cities that benefit from Ebenezer Howard's core idea that the inevitable rise in land values would be captured by the communal entity and invested in constant improvement of infrastructure and services?
The reply to that proposition, coming from the next speakers was ‘No’; the land for any new ‘garden city’ would have to be purchased by private or public developers at high market prices, to be recaptured by sale of houses to the new residents, leaving nothing for later improvement of infrastructure and services.
Dr Nicholas Falk of Urbed presented the key planning considerations that should guide the design of a garden city using his Wolfson Prize winning study as applied to Oxford. He explained convincingly that it should provide diverse house types, not just little houses with gardens; but that to be viable, development should be close and well-connected by transport to an existing urban centre that provides a sufficient level of employment, retail and community facilities to attract the newcomers. Urbed’s attractive drawings illustrated these proposals.
Finally, Louise Wyman and Mark Davis of the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) presented the proposals for Ebbsfleet Garden City which would benefit from proximity to existing urban areas and roads, as well as to the HS1 rail link, and incorporates sensitive design ideas with natural green corridors and links to the Thames.

A housing panacea?

It was undoubtedly an interesting evening, but other doubts were lingering in the hall: Could these examples be counted as new garden cities and “A Panacea to London’s 21st Century Housing Challenge”? Or are they just sensible urban extensions?  More specifically:

• Would Ebbsfleet relieve the social implications of housing shortages in London, so fully displayed by Michael Edwards?

• Can any new urban form benefit from capturing the rise in land values for the benefit of local infrastructure and community services, which was at the heart of Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities idea?

These questions raise more fundamental issues regarding land values - their rise, their ownership, and how they may be managed.

The dynamics of house prices

Rising house prices in London cause social hardships, as well as public expenditure on subsidised housing and social services. The causes of rising prices are well known – demand exceeds supply - and it is the land value that changes, as people are prepared to pay more for proximity to employment and services. Proximity implies lower costs and shorter time of travel, but is often bought with a sacrifice of size and quality of the residential accommodation. The alternative of living in, say, Milton Keynes, means sacrificing a hefty ticket price and some three hours daily, which could have been spent more productively at home or at work.
The remedy to that would be a very significant increase in the number of dwellings within easy and inexpensive reach of London’s main employment and service centres. Such large scale expansion of housing could be done vertically or horizontally, and must be accompanied by fast and inexpensive transportation. Would we accept a London of skyscrapers as in New York, Hong Kong or in current Chinese cities? Or would we prefer to extend horizontally by reducing the green belt to its originally intended depth, accompanied by much better and cheaper transportation?
High rise offices and residential buildings have sprouted in recent years in the city’s centre and in a ring of peripheral areas, but most of London still retains its historic, more intimate scale. Are we happy to see a massive increase of housing through ‘vertical redevelopment’, losing London’s distinctive character?
The alternative – building over parts of the green belt – is a highly contested issue we are all familiar with. We should, however, remind ourselves of its main objectives – to provide city people with green open space for recreation and escape from the dense urban environment, and to maintain the separate identity of cities and other human settlements. These aims could be achieved for London with a ‘green belt’ of even, say, 3-4 miles. The TCPA proposed in 2002 a more flexible policy which would allow the introduction of well-selected green wedges and of strategic gap policies rather than the full expanse of green belts, and so make more land available for expansion of some urban areas.
But, hark - now comes the warning: The moment we decide to expand housing capacity on any land, the land values will rocket, the landowners will reap larger benefits than future users, and the original concept of a Garden City would not be viable.

Can rural land prices be controlled?

This brings up the next key proposition: The potential use of a CPO. Compulsory Purchase Orders were available to local planning authorities for decades, allowing them to purchase land at its current use value if it was required for development that is important for the general public needs (including, for example, town centre regeneration), and would not materialise otherwise (including, for example, housing, infrastructure and town centre regeneration).  A CPO would thus prevent the landowner from keeping or using it for eventual rise in value.  
Similar powers were transferred by government in 2008 to the HCA, whose powers and obligations were defined in Circular 04/10, stating inter alia:
1. The Homes and Communities Agency (“the HCA”) was established under the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008. The HCA has statutory powers to compulsorily acquire land and new rights over land, subject to authorisation by the Secretary of State, under Section 9 of
the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008. The confirming authority for a compulsory acquisition by the HCA is the Secretary of State of the sponsoring department.
2. The objects of the HCA (and therefore the purposes for which the HCA may exercise its compulsory purchase powers) are set out in section 2 of the 2008 Act and are:

a. to improve the supply and quality of housing in England
b. to secure the regeneration or development of land or infrastructure in England
c. to support in other ways the creation, regeneration or development of communities in England or their continued well­being
d. to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development and good design in England, with a view to meeting the needs of people living in England.
These seem the most worthy intentions, and CPO a suitable mechanism, for the  HCA to compulsorily purchase open land at its actual low use value, close to London, yet leaving sufficient expanse of green belt to fulfil the green belt’s original purposes of recreation and separation.
If that land were served by fast and inexpensive transportation into central London, it would provide the desired housing standards and the desired travel aspirations for many households, at lesser cost and hassle.
If that development were owned and managed by a Garden City Corporation, collecting lease or rent payments that increase over time, they could invest it in community services – just as Ebenezer Howard was hoping to see.

Dalia Lichfield is principal of Dynamic Planning


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