By Colin Marrs

19 May 2014

Garden cities have long been a fertile idea in public policy. First planned over a century ago, they flowered in Hertfordshire in the ‘20s – and now this perennial concept is set to bear fruit once again. Colin Marrs reports

On a former chalk pit, a few miles east of London, life is stirring. This is Ebbsfleet – the site of George Osborne’s planned new garden city, as announced in March’s budget. Some development was already underway there: by June, the first 150 homes will be completed. But that’s small beer: Osborne hopes to turbo-boost the nascent settlement to deliver 15,000 new homes, whilst providing a test-bed for three more prospective garden cities in the South-East of England.

The chancellor announced that responsibility for delivering the Ebbsfleet plans would henceforth lie with an urban development corporation. This model was established by the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 in order to regenerate derelict industrial sites, and revived in the 2000s by the Labour government to deliver a small number of schemes – including the London 2012 Olympic Games. 

The top leaders of UDCs are appointed by central government, so they’re considered quangos. Within a defined legal boundary, the corporations take on planning and land acquisition powers from local government. This caused resentment among the affected councils during the 1980s, and Local Government Association chairman Sir Merrick Cockell expresses concerns about the latest announcement. “Residents will be concerned that such a body, unelected and accountable to central government, could have the power to make local decisions about investment, planning, development and possibly even local transport,” he says.

Nonetheless Jeremy Kite, leader of Dartford Council – home to the Ebbsfleet development – is sanguine about the UDC’s arrival. He says that discussions with civil servants and ministers have been good-natured, and that he’s relaxed about the corporation as long as the council remains fully involved. “Until I am disappointed, I am optimistic,” he comments. “The vibe that we are getting is that Whitehall wants to set us free but keep an eye on us.” A spokesperson for the Department for Communities and Local Government says the corporation “will work toward clear and focused objectives rather than duplicating the work of the local councils, providing the coordination, expertise, and powers necessary to drive forward delivery”.

The department confirms that council members will sit on the board of the Ebbsfleet corporation, to help retain local buy-in. While it’s unlikely that civil servants will be directly involved in the board, the chairman will report directly to the department, and civil servants are likely to transfer to work within the new organisation. Kite says that a planner from the council has already been seconded to work within DCLG on the plans for one day a week.

Alongside Osborne’s Budget announcement, the government also released a prospectus inviting bids from local authorities to create an undefined number of further garden cities. This actually represented the delivery of a promise made by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg back in November 2012: the plans were delayed by wrangling within government, with communities secretary Eric Pickles in particular understood to be worried about the electoral effect of large scale developments in shire constituencies.

The prospectus does not prescribe the delivery arrangements that local authorities should use to deliver these new settlements, saying merely that UDCs could be used for the “most demanding schemes”. Campaign group the Town and Country Planning Association says that the emphasis on locally-led proposals is welcome, but that it would be naïve to think that authorities won’t require central government support. Katy Lock, garden cities and new towns advocate at TCPA, says: “There is no precedent for such large schemes to be delivered by local authorities. You really need a delivery mechanism like a corporation to coordinate delivery.”

Ironically, although the government has opted for a UDC to deliver the Ebbsfleet proposals, on paper it could be one of the easiest of the schemes to bring to fruition. There are only a small number of landowners in the area, so it’s unlikely that the body will need to use land assembly powers. And planning permission for 15,000 homes has been in place on parts of the site since 2002. As Kite says: “Planning has not been the problem with delivering this site.”

At first glance, Ebbsfleet was a prime candidate for intervention by central government – progress on the planning applications by developer Land Securities has been painfully slow. However, these delays have their roots in some substantive problems – particularly the challenging task of preparing the former industrial site for development. Catherine Worboys, managing director at Curtin & Co – the planning communications consultancy working on behalf of Land Securities – says: “The scale of what has had to be done on the site is massive: it involves draining two large reservoirs into the Thames.” The recession also caused delays, says Kite, as did Land Securities’ inexperience at developing housing schemes.

Transport links are another notorious barrier to large-scale housing development, with the Highways Agency able to block schemes deemed to have inadequate road access. Richard Blythe, head of policy, practice and research at planners’ membership body the Royal Town Planning Institute, says: “This investment is in the gift of the Department for Transport, whose role needs to expand from simply dealing with the performance of the rail network to working pro-actively to advise parliament on good locations for investment. These locations need to be influenced by where people want to live.”

Though the prospectus is keen to present future garden cities as locally-led, it does promise “soft” government support to help deliver them. The lessons of previous development initiatives will be learned, it says, pointing to the work undertaken to coordinate government departments, agencies and the local authority on one scheme in Kettering. “This has enabled a common understanding between government and local partners on opportunities to move the scheme forward,” it comments. Other major developments, however – particularly in parts of the Thames Gateway – have historically been hampered by a lack of coordination between government departments.

The TCPA’s Lock regrets the use of 1980s legislation to create a UDC at Ebbsfleet. Instead, she says, the new generation of garden cities should have been delivered by an update to the 1946 New Towns Act, giving development corporations much greater powers – including over plan-making, and the capture of increases in land value to fund infrastructure. 

The garden cities prospectus is the latest attempt by Whitehall to meet housing demand in the South-East of England, and carefully attempts to combine respect for local power with the momentum required to get diggers on-site. If the government selects sites such as Ebbsfleet, where planning and ownership issues are minimal, then it may need to do little more than coordinate existing plans. But if it chooses more complicated sites and less developed schemes, then they may well fail unless the civil service is willing to step up, grab a spade, and flex its statutory instruments.

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