The government's Garden Villages plan suggests that 2017 will be just as disappointing as 2016

Building work in proposed new town Bicester. Image: Getty.

Good news, everyone! Britain’s government has clearly made a new year’s resolution to stop mucking about and address the housing crisis. On Monday 2 January – a bank holiday, note – it revealed details of its latest plan to get Britain building.

The bad news is: it’s rubbish.

We’ll get to why in a minute: first, let’s accentuate the positive and explain what’s planned. The government has thrown its support behind 14 new garden villages – “from Devon to Derbyshire, Cornwall to Cumbria”, and also, one must assume, some less alliterative places. Each of these developments will provide between 1,500 and 10,000 homes, and will have access to their share of £6m of government funding “to unlock the full capacity of sites” (so: land assembly, clean-up, minor transport links etc).

But! There’s more.

The government also announced today (2 January 2017) its support for 3 new garden towns in Aylesbury, Taunton and Harlow & Gilston – and a further £1.4m of funding to support their delivery.

With this £7.4m of funding to address a crippling national crisis, ambassador, you are really spoiling us.

Together with the 7 garden towns already announced, these 17 new garden settlements have the combined potential to provide almost 200,000 new homes across the country.

This all sounds look good news, right? So why am I not donning my “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt for a one man-street parade ?

Because, in short, this is yet more evidence of the government’s complete and total paucity of ambition. Once upon a time we had garden cities. At some point in the Cameron administration, we were promised Garden Towns. Now, this ambition has been downgraded yet further, and we’re looking at “Garden Villages” instead. These numbers are just too small: 1,500 homes is less a new settlement than a large estate.

Also, this is by-the-by, but there's no detail whatsoever about what will make a “garden village” any different from “some houses”.


But let’s be optimistic about these figures and assume that all those homes actually get built. They won’t, of course, because they’re meant to be “locally-led”, and in many areas the local papers are already running endless stories about local NIMBYs don’t want them; but let’s imagine, for one moment, that they will.

Let’s assume, what’s more, that these new homes are additional to those that the market would deliver without government action. That probably won’t be true either – the big housing developers effectively have a cap on how many homes they will build, because the auction process through which they buy land pushes prices up and commits them to a certain sale price. If it looks like they won’t meet that price, they stop building. As a result, even if those 200,000 homes do get built, it’s likely that at least some of them will effectively be displacing building new homes that would have happened elsewhere.

But let’s ignore that too. For our purposes, the government has magically conjured another 200,000 homes into existence. Well done, ministers! Does that solve the housing crisis?

No, of course it bloody doesn’t. England is currently building about 150,000 homes a year. On conservative estimates, it needs to be building around 250,000 homes a year. It’s 100,000 short, each and every year.

 So, if all these homes happen (which, they obviously won’t) and if they’re additional (which they obviously won’t be), they’ll represent about two years’ worth of missing supply.

How long is it going to take to build then?

By 2020, more than 25,000 housing starts are expected in garden villages, towns and cities supported by the government.

Right. So in the next three years, if everything goes well, we’re going to start building about one eighth of these proposed homes. That’s three months’ worth.

I’ve been trying to think of a clever way of ending this, but all I can think is: this is truly pathetic.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”