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UK to get New Garden City – But It Needs One Every Week

Britain is to get its first new garden city in decades, and it is to be Bicester near Oxford, providing 13,000 homes at a cost of £100 million. Already it has come under criticism from NIMBYs and from others for saying that it does not go nearly far enough to meet the demand for sustainable, affordable homes.

The precise proposals will be published tomorrow when the British Chancellor makes his Autumn Statement and reveals a National Infrastructure Plan, but the announcement was made today by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

It will include a new station to take residence into London or Oxford.

Location of Bicester, Oxfordshire, UK:

Location of Bicester, Oxfordshire, UK

A series of new communities with green spaces, sustainable transport and spacious homes will be built. Mr Clegg has previously claimed the Conservatives "held back the development of garden cities on the scale necessary" and promised at least ten will be created if the Liberal Democrats are part of the next government.

Prime Minister David Cameron had earlier expressed support for more garden cities in the UK along the lines of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City but throughout 2013 held back on announcements due to a fear of upsetting Conservative Party supporters in the constituencies concerned. Andrew Motion, president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, has accused Mr Clegg of a "wilful act of sabotage" and "gross neglect" for backing plans for garden cities.

The UK population has grown by 5m to 63.7m in the last decade and is forecast by officials to reach 73m by 2037. The lack of supply of new homes has reached a crisis point. Yet ministers have struggled to find a way to increase the number of new homes built each year from its current level of about 120,000 "starts", close to a peacetime low.

"Garden cities need to be in the Tory heartland in a great arc from Oxford to Cambridge", a Liberal Democrat aide has said. "That is where the real demands is, near jobs and close to anticipated population growth." Announcements on new sites have been repeatedly cancelled over the last year.

Some existing residents near the proposed new town have already taken to Twitter to criticise the plans. They fear heavy traffic at the weekends and more congestion. There is already a resident-led petition calling for the plans to be halted until these issues are addressed. Other concerns include increased housing prices and council tax and pressure on public transport.

One tweet read: "Over my lifetime I've seen #Bicester grow from small town to conurbation as dodgy developers pile on the estates without any facilities."

But this is the kind of thing that properly planned garden cities are intended to avoid.

The Town and Country Planning Association has lobbied for the new homes, saying that 240,000 a year are required to be built, but lambasted the coalition government for failing to provide the political certainty required to get the new conurbations built.

What the UK needs is a new announcement like this every week to satisfy the demand. As it is, development is developer-led, piecemeal and results in precisely the poor conditions complain about by the local residents above.

Planning departments of local councils in reality do not "plan" anything, merely reacting to developers' proposals according to the prescriptions of the latest legislation.

The Localism agenda promoted by the Conservatives at the beginning of their tenure in Parliament four years ago, which was intended to see local residents coming up with local neighbourhood plans about what they wanted in their neighbourhood, has not translated to meaningful locally-led development plans. If anything it has resulted in Nimbyism, hell-bent on rejecting any kind of change unless it is about traffic congestion relief – hardly a case of "putting sustainable development at the heart of the planning system", the principal originally outlined by ministers.

Similarly the previous Labour government had plans for a series of eco-towns but many fell by the wayside because of local opposition and scepticism about their real ecological credentials.

The fundamental problem, as described by Bioregional's Pooran Desai, is land speculation. He believes it should be banned. It artificially drives up the price of land putting it outside of the reach of most of those who need to use it.

As I have written elsewhere recently, we need a change of attitude in planning so that the aim towards one planet living should become an underlying principle of planning and official policy as an objectively-verifiable sustainable strategy, so that the same set of social and environmental criteria would be used to assess all planning applications. This needs to be coupled with a concerted drive to deliver genuinely sustainable, affordable communities instead of serving the needs of developers.

Do as we say not as we do

Ironically in this context, last month saw a British trade mission to China advocating garden cities. Sir Sebastian Wood, the British Ambassador, met Zhu Zhihong, the Executive Vice Mayor of Chengdu, and they both agreed that Chengdu's rapid urbanisation is increasing demand for the services that the UK excels at, including urban planning, architecture, and green building technology.

Delegates included Chinese and British companies, planners, architects, academics and political leaders, and Wolfson Gardens City Prize winner David Rudlin of Urbed, who earlier this year called for 40 garden cities to be built in the UK.

British trade exhibition in China advocating garden citiesRight: the rather sad British trade exhibition in China about garden cities, including a telephone box style that hardly exists any more in the UK.

David Ames, Letchworth Garden City's Head of Heritage and Strategic Planning, told a Chinese television audience of 500 million of the International Garden Cities Institute, to be launched in January next year.

The delegates' ideas for garden cities might be applied to the design of Tianfu New Area, a satellite town for 2 million people just outside Chengdu, which will include enterprise zones covering science, aviation, IT and agriculture; 13 residential zones; and major infrastructure including metro lines and a central park inspired by New York's.

Impression of Tianfu New Area:

Impression of Tianfu New Area

Zhou Yong, the Vice Dean of Building and Environment Department at Sichuan University, was reported as saying: "The Garden City delegation from the UK are like a beacon giving us hope and light." 

Clegg added to his announcement by promising that "Bicester will get help from the Government with both significant capital investment and in helping developers build the amenities that are required to be a true garden town.

"I hope many other towns will follow Bicester's lead and we will see more garden cities spring up that have the affordable, well-designed homes with proper transport links; services and amenities, which our young families want and need."

Until the plans are published it is impossible to say whether this constitutes a properly sustainable development.