After much delay and speculation about secret dossiers and inter-party coalition rivalry, the Government has published its garden cities prospectus and outlined plans to make Ebbsfleet in Kent the first one to be built since Welwyn in 1920.
It calls for expressions of interest from local areas interested in building garden cities of at least 15,000 homes. It could be a massive boost for landscape architects, landscapers, maintenance teams, gardeners and amenity suppliers. Before its publication on Tuesday (14 April), we asked whether the Government's vision would match up to the promise of a brave new green solution to the housing crisis.
Ebbsfleet has seen a series of outline planning permissions granted since 2002 but development stalled because somebody had to pay for the infrastructure. The Government's pledge to "support a new garden city at Ebbsfleet" involves forming a dedicated urban development corporation to drive spending of up to £200m on infrastructure.
Sir Ebenezer Howard's original vision was a self-contained settlement of just 32,000 people on 2,400ha surrounded by agriculture with enough local industry and leisure facilities, including parks and green space, for residents' everyday lives.
It has only had limited success, with Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities becoming the only two British examples. Some argue that they have ended up as middle-class commuter towns that fail to maintain Howard's vision.
The Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA), established by Howard as the Garden Cities Association in 1899, has been lobbying for more garden cities for the past century and produced Towns & Countryside for a New Age of Challenge: TCPA Manifesto for the 21st century in 2009. According to head of policy and events Julia Thrift, the former director of CABE Space, the three major political parties have all expressed an interest in recent years.
She says similar problems to today's mass urbanisation and need existed when Howard came up with his ideas. "The TCPA is really clear what a garden city is and it's based on the principles laid down by Howard. It's not just a suburb with trees in it. When the Government publishes its prospectus we'll see what links it with the garden city principles. They haven't explained how they're going to make Ebbsfleet a garden city, but it's a pretty good site to build on."
Thrift says she has more confidence now than a few years ago, but landscape is "always something that's easy to cut off the budget - that's why we hope it's embedded in the prospectus". She adds: "We need to build 240,000 homes in England every year and if we're going to build large-scale developments the garden city model is a really good one. It provides answers to a lot of the economic questions. The increase in value in the land once planning permission is granted can be captured and reinvested in the area. If you build from scratch you can build the services people need."
Trust and assets
Thrift says one important factor that should be in any garden city plan is a trust with assets that can raise money to pay for maintenance, as happens in Letchworth and Milton Keynes, one of the new towns that was influenced by garden cities. "If you look at some of the other new towns, their assets were sold off and they now can't afford to pay for maintenance."
The Landscape Institute thinks it is crucial to work "within the grain of nature" in developing any future garden city plans, something that can only be achieved by ensuring the local landscape character informs the development. It points out that such an approach is crucial to ensure, at the very least, that any new town is future-proofed as far as possible against climate change.
A statement released by the institute reads: "Cities have a long and distinguished history. They have the potential to help alleviate the acute housing shortage in England in a way that is truly sustainable. Achieving this effectively will, however, require a commitment to working with the grain of nature.
"Green infrastructure planning and design must be at the heart of garden city development. We hope the prospectus will support this so that future residents can enjoy the wide range of social, environmental and economic green infrastructure benefits."
But if we are to see a revolution in urban creation, we also need a revolution in delivery. Who would ensure that there really are gardens in any new garden city? Boningale Nurseries chairman and HTA amenity committee chairman Tim Edwards says there should be a review to learn lessons from the success of the Olympic Park, where plant procurement was specified by the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA).
"What we as an industry did was we requested that the supply of the plants was considered at the outset so that by the time the contracts for the landscaping got issued the plants were right up at the front end," he explains. "Plants need to be specified by whatever the delivery model is. The method used by the ODA worked."
In contrast, he adds, in a typical school private-finance initiative, whatever the original Government plans for plants "it ends up a mess" because there are too many layers in the tendering.
Vision into reality
Many credit the late John Hopkins - the ODA parklands and public realm project sponsor who selected and oversaw the team that delivered more than 100ha of open space in the Olympic Park - with ensuring that the vision for a green and biodiverse games became a reality.
Edwards thinks the lessons are very simple: "Make someone a champion of the landscape and put them in the centre of the delivery team right through until the end, ring-fence the budget, specify well, don't let the landscape architects off the job as soon as the design is done and make sure that everyone knows from the outset what is going to be supplied."
He adds: "There was a desire to buy British through good reasons and there are even more good reasons now - plant health and biosecurity. If we could get it to happen like that, garden cities could be brilliant. There are lots of good ideas out there."
Prospectus Key points for garden cities
- Garden cities to be "locally led" and must have approval of all local authorities.
- They need to be "integrated and thriving communities" where people live, work and play.
- Must have commercial, retail, educational and community facilities, quality design, gardens and accessible green space.
- Must be "commercially viable during the development phase and beyond". Like the original garden cities, proposals must "consider how to draw in private capital and make use of the land value uplift for infrastructure."
- Can be delivered through a mechanisms from public-private joint venture companies to statutory bodies such as development corporations.
- Government to help garden cities through the planning system and assist access to a range of funds.