There is a lot of talk about building major new settlements in the south east outside London. Last month there was a row about a ‘secret report’ that David Cameron refuses to publish recommending that two ‘new cities’ should be built in the south east, in Yalding, Kent, and Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, according to the Telegraph. Having raised the idea forcefully in the first place, it appears that Cameron is now scared of frightening the horses in his own political back yard. Nick Clegg and the LibDems are said to be very much in favour. Labour has talked about ‘a new generation’ of garden cities and new towns, and Ed Balls has talked about using Treasury guarantees to support borrowing for the projects.
Two things strike me about this debate. First, none of the proposals are likely to produce any completed houses in the next Parliament and therefore should not divert attention from the more urgent policies required to build new homes. Second, the way garden cities and new towns are being discussed would have Ebenezer Howard turning in his grave.
Howard, who pioneered the garden city idea and was responsible for the building of Letchworth and Welwyn, had a particular concept in mind. He saw them as self-contained communities which would provide homes for a mix of agricultural workers and workers in new industries brought to the town. They were intended to provide working class families with a better alternative to living in agricultural tied cottages or in crowded unhealthy cities. His original concept was of a co-operative ownership scheme with no landlords, but this was compromised by the need to borrow privately to buy land and to build; in the end they housed more white-collar than blue-collar workers and could not avoid becoming dormitory towns for London to a significant extent.
The new towns that followed the garden city idea were conceptualised during WW2 and legislated for in the 1946 New Towns Act. The aim was to remedy overcrowding and congestion in the major cities, rehousing people in new communities that were also intended to be self-sufficient. Nearly 30 new towns were built, in the north (like the very successful Washington Co Durham, firmly established by the success in bringing Nissan to the town), south (like Stevenage and Harlow) and midlands (like Telford) as well as Scotland and Wales. Other towns were expanded, like Peterborough. Looking back, their success has been very varied but they housed 1 million people and made an important contribution to relieving housing pressure in the big cities.
Quite what the political proponents of new garden cities or new towns have in mind is still lost in generality. What they are, and who they house, matters almost as much as whether they should exist at all. They are certainly not cities, and even if in the end 2 or 3 are built in the south east it will take a decade or more, making a relatively small contribution to overall supply (assuming they house around 30,000 people each).
There is confusion about their purpose. Are they self-sufficient communities with their own employment or are they dormitories for London? I heard one commentator say they should be built along the route of HS2 without apparently realising that the damn thing won’t be stopping. Others insist that they should be built around stations with good commuter links to London, which will add to the existing overcrowding on trains from places like Basingstoke and Harlow – routes that will not be eased by the new capacity on HS2.
If they are built only where local communities want them – this is what Eric Pickles has said and what can be implied from the ‘new localism’ policies of Hilary Benn – what kind of towns will they be? The 1946 new towns were seen by the then Planning Minister, Lewis Silkin, as ‘a job for the nation’. The sites were decided by the Minister, the land was compulsorily purchased by the Minister and vested in an appointed development corporation. The local councils were ‘consulted’ but could not determine the development plan. Development plans were generally about welcoming incomers who were ‘overspilling’ from the great cities, setting out how to provide the mix of homes that was needed for them and how to settle them into a new community. ‘Exporting’ councils were heavily involved, effectively buying access to the new homes by paying the rate subsidy that was at the time required to match Exchequer subsidy for new housebuilding. (The Second Reading debate for the New Towns Act is fascinating reading, and can be found here). If modern new towns are under the control of local councils, whose interests will they serve? Will they have an appropriate mix of social rented and a full range of owner occupied homes, or will they comprise executive homes for the well-to-do after the style much loved by builders and councils in many places in the south east?
If the aim is to relieve housing pressure within the south east, then fair enough, they will make a contribution. But the commonly stated aim is that they will alleviate shortage and housing need in London. There is no mechanism to make sure the new homes will be made available to Londoners. No-one imagines that new development corporations will have the powers to override local interests in the same way that the previous generation did. Will Government insist that homes for sale will include starter homes that will be sold to first time buyers from London? Or will it be left to the market? Will there be a place for private landlords? How many social rented homes will there be, or will they be ‘affordable rent’? Will they be let to London’s housing waiting lists or will there be a locals-first policy, making the new homes irrelevant to London?
Ken Livingstone as mayor was highly doubtful that south east councils would ever be able and willing to contribute towards meeting London’s needs in addition to their own. If they did, that would be a bonus – but he insisted that the only viable strategy was for London to do everything in its power to meet its own needs and not hope for help from others.
Ambitious-sounding talk about more garden cities or new towns make it sound like the Parties are serious and ambitious about building large numbers of new homes. Of course there may be a few areas where new communities are both appropriate and have support locally. But they will take a long time, the benefits are not as clear as they need to be, and they will never be big enough to challenge my main conclusion. Which is: the homes London needs must be built within London, and the political focus must be resolutely on making that happen.