Garden cities can't solve London's housing crisis either

It won't solve anything: Ebbsfleet, Kent, the site of a proposed garden city. Image: Getty.

London is growing by 100,000 people a year, and the next mayor needs to double housebuilding. It’s tough finding space to do that within London. Could new or expanded towns outside London take some of the strain?

new report by Quod with homelessness charity Shelter finds they could help – but cannot be the only answer.

Garden Cities and New Towns hold an iconic status in the history of town planning, as the grandest of planned urban interventions. There are nine within about 30 miles of London – in and around the Green Belt – that function largely as London overspill/commuter settlements. The oldest, Letchworth and Welwyn were established in 1903 and 1910 respectively, while the rest were allocated shortly after the Second World War.

Others, including Milton Keynes, Northampton, Peterborough and Corby, were established later, are larger and intended to be more independent of London, lying up to 75 miles from the city.

Between them, the population of all thirteen of these new towns today is about the same as the last 12 years of London growth. Every year London has added population equivalent to a town the size of Crawley, Basildon or Stevenage.

The largest and most successful New Town is Milton Keynes. At its peak it was delivering around 2,700 homes a year. To fill the gap in London’s housing supply we would need ten more Milton Keynes, all growing at that rate, in addition to current London housebuilding.

Meeting London’s growth through New Towns would not reduce the need for land, just displace it. And it would require a lot of land – the urban areas of the thirteen new towns in red in the map at the top of the page have a combined population about 15 per cent of London’s, but take up an area equivalent to more than 25 per cent of London.

What’s more, given that the regions around London have their own housing shortfalls to deal with, New Towns would have to deliver a lot before they started to significantly relieve London’s pressures.

Building Garden Cities or New Towns beyond London’s boundaries would of course be outside of the mayor’s planning authority, although the Mayor could be involved in negotiating or even funding them. Unlike other strategic options explored in the Quod/Shelter report, garden cities would therefore rely heavily on either national government intervention to designate sites, or willing local authorities in the South East of England.

New or expanded towns around London would be a helpful, indeed essential, contribution to the current housing shortfall. But we should not kid ourselves that it would avoid the need for much more housebuilding within London too.

Barney Stringer is a director at regeneration consultancy Quod. This article was originally posted on his blog.

The firm’s report, “Brownfield is Not Enough”, published with housing charity Shelter, is available here.


What is to be done? Some modest suggestions on solving the NIMBY problem

Lovely, lovely houses. Image: Getty.

The thing about NIMBYism, right, is that there’s no downside to it. If you already own a decent size house, then the fact a city isn’t building enough homes to go round is probably no skin off your nose. Quite the opposite, in fact: you’ll actively benefit from higher house prices.

So it’s little wonder that campaigning against property development is a popular leisure activity among those looking forward to a long retirement (don’t Google it, it’ll only depress you). It’s sociable, it’s profitable, it only takes a few hours a week, and, best of all, it makes you feel righteous, like you’re doing something good. In those circumstances, who wouldn’t be a NIMBY?

To fight the scourge of NIMBYism, then, what we need to do is to rebalance the risks and rewards that its participants face. By increasing the costs of opposing new housebuilding, we can make sure that people only do it when said development is genuinely a horror worth fighting – rather than, say, something less than perfect that pops up a Tuesday afternoon when they don’t have much else on.

Here are some reasonable and sensible ideas for policies to make that happen.

A NIMBY licence, priced at, say, £150 a month. Anyone found practicing NIMBYism without a licence faces a fine of £5,000. Excellent revenue raiser for the Treasury.

Prison sentences for NIMBYs. Not all of them, obviously – we’re not barbarians – but if the planning process concludes that a development will be good for the community, then those who tried to prevent it should be seen as anti-social elements and treated accordingly.

A NIMBY lottery. All homeowners wishing to oppose a new development must enter their details into an official government lottery scheme. If their number comes up, then their house gets CPOed and redeveloped as flats. Turns NIMBYism into a form of Russian roulette, but with compulsory purchase orders instead of bullets.

This one is actually a huge range of different policies depending on what you make the odds. At one end of the scale, losing your house is pretty unlikely: you’d think twice, but you’re probably fine. At the other, basically everyone who opposes a scheme will lose their entire worldly wealth the moment it gets planning approval, so you’d have to be very, very sure it was bad before you even thought about sticking your head above the parapet. So the question is: do you feel lucky?

NIMBY shaming. There are tribal cultures where, when a member does something terrible, they never see them again. Never talk to them, never look at them, never acknowledge them in any way. To the tribe, this person is dead.

I’m just saying, it’s an option.

A NIMBY-specific bedroom tax. Oppose new housing development to your heart’s content, but be prepared to pay for any space you don’t need. I can’t think of any jokes here, now I’ve written it down I think this one’s genuinely quite sensible.

Capital punishment for NIMBYs. This one’s a bit on the extreme side, so to keep things reasonable it would only apply to those NIMBYs who believe in capital punishment for other sorts of crime. Fair’s far.

Pushing snails through their letter boxes. This probably won’t stop them, but it’d make me feel better. The snails, not so much.

Reformed property taxes, which tax increases in house prices, so discourage homeowners from treating them as effectively free money.

Sorry, I’m just being silly now, aren’t I?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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