Garden communities: Still fit for purpose?

The concept of garden communities has been around for many years and with the government announcing funding for five new sites this year, it looks like they are here to stay. However, Dave Pendle, associate director at Marrons Planning, says that close connection between planning and politics could mean that their original aim is being diluted

The Garden City movement has been around for many years. This appetite for garden towns is leading to developers of strategic sites increasingly finding that they must align themselves with the political agenda in order to improve their chances of gaining planning permission.

Origins of garden communities

With origins rooted in the welfare reform of the late 19th Century, garden communities are generally defined as developments of over 10,000 homes where people can live, work and play with easy access to the countryside or other green space. They were founded in reaction to the heavy industrialisation and poor conditions of the time, with the aim of improving living conditions, both socially and economically.

However, tackling the housing crisis has become an ongoing national priority, and in turn, this is leading to garden communities straying away from their principles. So, has the close connection between planning and politics diluted the original aims and are garden communities still fit for purpose?

Over a century after their original inception, garden towns are still viewed as desirable places to live, with many people being drawn in by thoughts of privet hedges and large back gardens. Whilst developments can sell themselves purely on this impression alone, the reality may be that new developments are not necessarily living up to the ideal.

Principles of the garden city movement

There are a number of principles, held by custodians the Town and Country Planning Association, which define a garden community. These include the need for the site to have a comprehensive network of green space, affordable homes, local jobs and accessible transport systems. It is possible that interpretation of the principles will differ slightly depending on the focuses of the Government at the time, but the essence remains the same.

However, it is common for some of these important principles to be overlooked when planning for new communities. One area which is often missed is the capture of land value and long-term stewardship of assets to pay for community services, such as parks and allotments. This in theory ensures that the residents have a stake in the development to the benefit of the community, economy and environment.

That being said, the focus across the country has arguably been on the number of homes built rather than community ideals and some of the principles are pushed to the side in order to prioritise the more prescient elements of garden towns.

There have been gaps in what the government at all levels ask for when it comes to garden towns leading to some developments being simply rebranded as ‘garden town’ purely as window dressing. These developments may not meet all of the criteria needed to meet the original definition of a garden town but are often close enough to be accepted.

Benefits of a garden community

For developers, there are three main benefits of labelling a development a ‘garden community’. The first comes from Government garden town competitions where developers can bid for support ranging from funding to political backing from important planning and development stakeholders. Successful bids see the second benefit come into play, as local planning authorities are more likely to welcome plans that are submitted to them with the benefit of a government-backed project. The third benefit comes from the branding with the potential for recognised garden towns to be more successful when marketing to the public.

This focus on marketing and sales could be part of why the accolade of being a ‘garden town’ has become more important than the design and development principles which support it. The Town and Country Planning Association’s principles are undoubtedly aspirational, whether developers achieve them or not, so these developments will always provide a desirable place to live. Housing needs to be built, but it also needs to be sold. With this in mind, the core principles set out over 100 years ago still provide a starting point for strategic developments and garden towns still fulfil an important function.

Nevertheless, garden communities are not the sole answer to the country’s housing needs. A healthy mix of new developments, in a diverse range of locations, is the only way to successfully meet these requirements. Garden towns take time to plan and deliver, so although they create a large amount of housing, they do so slowly. On the other hand, small and medium sites are quicker to build, boosting housing numbers in less time, but they often don’t provide the space for businesses and further infrastructure. Therefore, a combination is essential for successful growth.

It may be the case that the definition of garden town has been diluted by politics and the UK’s changing needs, however, they still carry out a vital purpose. The country requires more quality housing, and garden communities can go a long way towards the government’s yearly target of creating 300,000 homes. They may not be the chocolate box dream many imagine, but garden communities do provide a solution to a problem that impacts on us all, much like their original iteration.

Nationwide Sureties blog in association with Engage.


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