Stop going down the garden path and come up with a strategy / by Broadway Malyan Admin

Jeff Nottage

By Jeff Nottage, director of masterplanning

When it comes to buzzwords and slogans, nobody does it quite like politicians.

From John Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ to Harold MacMillan’s ‘Never Had it so Good’, these carefully crafted sound bites can either set the tone for a generation or become the stuff of political nightmares. The latest Government buzzword which has become the go-to prefix in the on-going challenge to deliver on its housing promises is the humble ‘garden’. By any measure, the Government’s garden city initiative has thus far not delivered everything that it would have hoped. Two years after being propelled into the vanguard of the Government’s crusade to drive a new era of housebuilding, just a fraction of the promised new homes have been delivered in Ebbsfleet, the first new garden city of the 21st century.

Undeterred, we have now seen proposals announced for a 45,000 home garden city in the heart of the Black Country in the West Midlands. The project aims to encourage the development of 550 potential sites across Wolverhampton, West Bromwich, Halesowen, Wednesfield and Walsall to create a single homogenous development that will help transform the identity of the region. The project would be one of the UK’s largest ever regeneration projects and would deliver much needed homes around the Greater Birmingham area but it is hard to escape the notion that the garden city tag is little more than a label of convenience for a laudable aspiration to make use of that region’s myriad brownfield sites.

In the Chancellor’s Budget we are also expecting to see the announcement of another new garden-themed initiative that it hopes will boost housebuilding – the garden suburb, a more politically and locally acceptable title for the greenfield urban extensions that are happening already. Taken as a whole, the Government’s various attempts to encourage developers to deliver anything like the number of homes the UK needs is already having an impact in terms of bare numbers but it is far from the coherent strategy that is necessarily going to deliver housing where it is most needed.

The current planning system means we now have a housing strategy that is driven by planning gain and available land rather than a spatial framework that considers fundamental issues such as mass transit and amenities when identifying the best land to develop. The system, as it currently stands, has stopped town and cities looking beyond their own borders to create proper joined up plans to deliver housing – apart from the occasional loose coalitions that are more often borne out of geographical opportunism than strategic necessity with new settlements emerging where local communities will accept them rather than where they are most needed.

But there are signs that a move back towards a more strategic approach could be afoot.

It is difficult to know what effect devolution will have and whether it will engender a more pan-regional approach to planning but the Black Country garden city initiative crosses various borders and jurisdictions and suggests the West Midlands sees the benefits of a more joined up approach.

The first report from the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) also claims up to 200,000 new homes could be unlocked by Crossrail 2 but this can only be done through a strategic approach across the whole line which would also need a sensible conversation about the reclassification of land that is currently Green Belt. There remains swathes of existing Green Belt that is non-descript farmland, paddocks and golf courses which is neither environmentally or ecologically sensitive and could provide strategically important development sites in the future.

The current approach is still not delivering the scale of housebuilding the UK needs and it will be interesting to see if the NIC report and the Black Country garden city are the start of a new trend back towards regionalism or just more empty rhetoric.  

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