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?
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.