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Planning policy challenges of the garden city model

July 17, 2017

By Bernard Greep

Garden Cities, Towns and Villages should provide an opportunity to create great places where people will want to live and work

The policy and planning challenges to achieving that ambition, however, are markedly different now than when the original Garden Settlements were being planned 100 years ago.

The supporting literature relating to the latest wave of Garden Settlements is peppered with ambitious phrases such as ‘a Garden Village/Town/City of national significance’, ‘flagship development’, ‘exemplar scheme’, and ‘opportunity to deliver lower-density executive style homes.’ There is also great emphasis on extensive networks of connected green infrastructure and generous provision of open space.  We commend and support all of those aspirations—but wonder if they will be enough to get these projects across the line.

Today, there are myriad planning and policy challenges to overcome—many of which simply did not exist in the pre-1947 era—as well as numerous competing demands on available funds. Many of these are inter-connected issues that need to be contended with in tandem, such as:

  • Land ownership – we know of a Garden Village that has some 70 or 80 different individual landowners, despite being at the lower end of the size spectrum for Garden Settlements at around 1,600 dwellings. That creates a whole range of challenges in terms of logistics surrounding engagement, creating a commonly shared vision, expectations regarding land value, and so on.
  • Design standards – these should be set high, but the ‘Garden’ badge can’t be a licence for requirements that are unduly onerous or so prescriptive that they undermine viability and deliverability. Resolving this balance is a challenge in any case—and more so for the Garden Settlement where expectations are elevated.
  • Density – residing in a low-density community within a green and pleasant land is the utopia that most people would aspire to, given the choice. The present-day reality, however, is that land resources are much more scarce and valuable than when Howard was around.
  • Achievable sales revenues – some parts of the country command much higher sales revenues than others, where there are effectively value ceilings. In some parts of the North of England, for instance, it can be difficult to achieve £200 per sq.ft whereas receipts in excess of double that level can be commanded elsewhere. When the full complement of affordable housing is factored in, along with the need for significant supporting infrastructure (schools, medical facilities, roads, drainage systems and the like)—as well as a plethora of other requirements from various agencies—this can seriously jeopardise scheme viability where achievable sales revenues are relatively low. The question then is whether the ‘Garden’ aspiration is just one more requirement that takes its place alongside the rest.
  • Funding the supporting infrastructure – even the smallest Garden Settlements are sizeable, at approximately 1,500 dwellings upwards, and funding the required infrastructure may be inherently challenging and complex. One (or maybe a handful) of developers will inevitably have to go first; others who follow may therefore achieve higher sales revenues when the Garden Settlement has taken more shape. The concept of the ‘Placemaker Premium’—where higher values occur for later phases of development when the location has its own status and gravitas—is already appearing in viability work we are involved in. Which parties should fund what infrastructure, and when, may require imagination and courage. Developers of early phases may need to provide ‘over-sized’ infrastructure. Some form of ‘roof tax’ and an equalisation mechanism may be required. So coverage and clawback will need to be factored in.
  • Environmental Impact Assessment – the scale of the Garden Settlements means they will invariably be EIA developments. Whilst not impossible, undertaking a single EIA for the whole village, town or city would be extremely challenging and so developers will need to consider voluntarily submitting an Environmental Statement for their phase of development.

Howard benefitted from a world where he could pursue his ideas relatively unencumbered by the bureaucracy of things like planning permission. Hence, the concepts of the early Garden City movement in terms of physical planning, development process, governance and management were driven by thoughts that were mainly idealistic. 

The ‘Garden Settlement’ term probably needs to have a different practicable application now. A balance needs to be struck between quality and deliverability, within a planning context that is infinitely more demanding than a century ago.

Originally published by PBA, now Stantec.

  • Bernard  Greep

    From regeneration schemes and implementation plans to evidence-based studies, Bernard works to support allocations and planning permissions on multisector developments.

    Contact Bernard
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