Roll the clock back twelve months from now and you might stumble upon a number of news pieces on grand housing plans, bound together by a narrative of national government tackling the problem of ‘sink estates’ head on. Pre-referendum, the government needed to be seen to be dealing with domestic issues in order to divert unwanted attention from its relationship with Europe. This year the same early January pattern was visible, using housing to create a business-as-usual distraction from Brexit uncertainty and indecision. However the announcement this week of a wave of ‘garden villages’ to create 50,000 new homes is at first a startling one to digest.
Most people living in rural areas or towns will be aware of nearby local authorities using land used for housing and typically be concerned about pressures on local infrastructure and services. Small scale additions to existing villages and towns are of course underway all over the country, whether they are branded garden villages or not. Much like the hype around garden cities in 2014, they are used fundamentally to dress up old policy in new clothes.
Dig a little deeper into the government’s press release issued on Monday and you will find that in reality the announcement merely places additional pressure on local authorities to deliver on their local plans with a fund of £6 million intended to cover resourcing costs to follow through on local planning policy.
Now the presence of a political will to build more homes is of course in simple terms a good thing, however it fails to ignore the fact that government is continually asking local authorities to approve more planning approvals with scarce resources through their local plans and zero influence on the economics of land value and housing delivery. Garden villages, after all, will only provide 48,000 homes nationally as a maximum and consume vast amounts of political capital given the sacrosanct nature of Britain’s greenbelt.
Take, for example, the site of Dunton Hills in Essex, one of the 14 proposed garden villages. Before the nearby postwar new town of Basildon was built to house over 100,000 people, the area of Dunton was home to a wave of Plotland settlements, sold to individuals at prices based on the cost of agricultural land. They are now almost all but vanished, in part due to their temporary nature and patchwork construction, but they represent a time when land was considered a resource within the jurisdiction of local government rather than an asset to pump up with the help of planning permission. Far from a New Year revelation, Dunton Hills village began its life as Dunton Garden Suburb back in 2014. Planned to provide 4,000 to 6,000 across two boroughs, it was rejected by 84% of respondents during local consultation. As the respective borough councils of Brentwood and Basildon battle with the blunt tools of local government in approving the revised scheme at Dunton Hills, messages coming from Westminster such as those from the DCLG this week fuel local anger and contribute to a sentiment of powerlessness and resentment towards an external force.
Local plans should be undoubtedly be encouraged and supported, however they should not be dressed up as a means for meeting arbitrary housing targets nationally. Local extensions to towns on greenbelt land will remain politically impotent in the near future until a strategic plan is in place to build truly ambitious 100,000+ home new towns. Placing pressure on local authorities to give green lights based on numbers alone will generate sub-standard developments which fail to provide local infrastructure or affordable housing. The housing white paper due to be produced later in the month will shed further light on the appetite of this government towards local additions to existing towns, particularly on greenbelt land.