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The trouble with garden communities…


Are garden communities really the answer to the housing shortage in Essex? Campaigner Rosie Pearson doesn't think so

Garden communities: a promise of genuinely affordable homes, sustainable transport and plenty of green space. Why would anyone oppose them? Unfortunately, the reality has been brought starkly into focus through the North Essex Garden Communities project.

Three problems leap out.

  • Where should you put a garden community?
  • How big should it be?
  • How do you fund it?

All development should be considered in relation to its surroundings. It will have wider impacts on transport infrastructure, communities and the environment.

Instead of site selection based on willing landowners, a convincing planning narrative is needed. What existing infrastructure can be used? Where are the jobs? How is it funded and who will bear the risks?

Size matters, but has not been debated, yet larger proposals bring complexity, risk and an increasing requirement for infrastructure. Delivery of larger projects is slow (think Ebbsfleet and Northstowe).

Our Small is Beautiful paper suggests that viability decreases at more than 2,000 homes. A garden city has a far bigger impact than a garden village, and the economics are radically different. Extrapolating the economics of 100 houses to 10,000-plus just doesn’t work (and nor does residual value methodology work for a new town). For large new schemes, particularly where public money is at stake, financial appraisal needs to play a proper role. The economic dimension of sustainability needs proper attention or the planning profession will fail to deliver.

“Transit oriented development, sustainable urban extensions and intensification are better than standalone settlements”

In North Essex the only viability study contains a basic error – the funding cost of land acquisition is ignored. Locations have been chosen with no regard to the financial implications, and the central government subsidy needed will be greater as a result.

‘Land value capture’ is often used to explain away viability problems, as in north Essex. Here, the authorities wish to borrow from government to buy land at below-market value. The landowners seem uninterested so far.

CPO is not the answer. It would require the authorities, through a long and complex negotiation process, to traverse human rights issues, to pay ‘hope value’. Thus the project has limited means of capturing the value required to fund the promised infrastructure.

"CAUSE says ‘small is beautiful’ and transit-oriented development, sustainable urban extensions and intensification are better than standalone settlements"

Councils should ensure collection of CIL and s.106 contributions instead of borrowing for risky garden cities.

Rosie Pearson is a planning campaigner and chair of CAUSE, The Campaign Against Urban Sprawl in Essex


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