Posted by Fabrick on 01 January 2021

We are at a crossroads. The UK has an urgent need for new homes but the construction sector is facing a number of pressures such as questions over quality and competence. Furthermore, the sector is facing a skills shortage and then there is the question of where do we build these new homes?

It has been estimated that the number of new homes needed in England is in the region of 345,000 per year. This is set against the original plan to build one million new homes by 2020 - the target the government set back in 2015. However, it has been calculated that we need 300,000 new homes to be built each year ‘for the foreseeable future’. This is to address the issues we are facing around overcrowding and a growing population.

It is all very well stating we need more homes but delivering them is a different story. Firstly, there is the question of where? Our cities are at capacity and whilst there is the option of building up, there is a need for family style housing. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we all live with many leaving the cities for towns and villages where there is more open space and an improved community feel.

In 2018 James Brokenshire, the then Housing Secretary, announced plans to create 23 new garden communities to help address this. The idea was to address the need for new homes whilst unlocking inaccessible rural land to create green spaces that people could use – a win win.

Garden Cities are not a new concept. You only have to look at Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City. Conceived by Ebenezer Howard around 1898 to combine the best bits of city and countryside life whilst eradicating all the worst bits, they were created as social experiments. However, they have worked. Today, both towns are thriving and extremely pleasant places to live. So why have we not created more garden cities? It’s a very good question. The concept was adopted again in the UK after World War II when the New Town Act spurred the development of many new communities. Since then, most new housing has come in the form of extending existing towns and cities rather than creating new ones. But with a need for new housing, now could be the time to see their resurgence.

With the announcement of the 23 new garden cities came a pledge to build 200,000 high quality homes with green spaces by 2050. Notwithstanding government commitment to be zero carbon by 2050, meaning all of these new homes will have to have one eye on zero emissions, 23 new towns is ambitious.

The concept is sound - a number of new settlements built on low-cost brownfield or agricultural land away from existing towns and villages, ranging in size from 1,500 homes to towns of up to 40,000 properties. However, they are not without their challenges.

Firstly, there is the issue of infrastructure. When building an extension to an existing town, the basis for the infrastructure already exists. In rural locations, it doesn’t. Secondly, the size of these larger settlements creates difficulties in themselves as most housebuilders are looking to deliver schemes of 50 to 300 homes over a relatively short period, selling as they go.

On the other side, you have government chomping at the bit to get as many homes built as quickly as possible, with associated infrastructure and services that don’t provide an immediate financial benefit to the builder.

In Kent, we have seen the creation of Ebbsfleet Garden City. This will see 15,000 homes created in the form of a 21st Century Garden City with an aspiration to provide high quality, attractive and sustainably-constructed housing as well as opportunities to work with the ambitious target of creating 30,000 jobs. To deliver the scheme, government set up the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation. This organisation effectively became the ‘master builder’ helping to fund and deliver infrastructure works. Furthermore, it enabled the engagement of multiple housebuilders – some national, some local and covering a mix of private and social – including Redrow, Berkeley Group, Bellway, MHS Group, Moat Homes and Keepmoat, ensuring it becomes a financial and logistical proposition.

Ebbsfleet Garden City ticks all the boxes. It is ideally located – close to London but near the coast. It has access to great high speed rail links and is utilsing land that has been sitting redundant – an industrial legacy of chalk quarries that were inaccessible and therefore offering no gain to the community.

Garden Cities do seem to offer the ideal solution to meeting our housing requirements, providing they have the management structure to ensure delivery. They have twice been tried in the UK and twice they have worked so this isn’t a case of third time lucky. However, this is an opportunity for us to meet our housing by unlocking inaccessible land and creating new green spaces alongside sustainable homes that will create new communities that will thrive for generations.

Image credit: Ebbsfleet Development Corporation

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