Are garden cities the answer to the housing crisis?

Jun 04, 2014 2:24 PM

Next year’s General Election will be decided by generation rent. There are 86 seats with enough private renters without party allegiance to overturn the incumbent MP’s majority, so every party should be courting their vote. After Labour’s pitch on rent reforms, the Coalition parties have used the Queen’s Speech to respond with their own grand plan: garden cities, and legislation to reform planning laws to bring them about. 

Ebenezer Howard's original garden city design

It was presumably no coincidence that Conservative peer Lord Wolfson used the morning of the Queen’s Speech to announce the shortlist of winning entries to his Economics Prize, which offers entrants £250,000 to design a visionary, viable and popular garden city. The prize organisers certainly gave the government’s case for garden cities some covering fire by publishing a poll that found overwhelming support for them – including among Conservative and UKIP voters.

The real test of course will come when people are asked to support a garden city on their doorstep – of the five finalists, only Shelter stuck their neck out with a specific, named location: the Hoo Peninsula in Kent.

The polling will give some comfort to Conservatives who desperately need a way of boosting housing supply while avoiding unrest among the older, rural home owners who make up their grass roots support. But while the core vote can cause them trouble, it is also important for the Tories long term survival that they win the votes of young adults who are typically starting families, struggling to find a home they can afford and still figuring out which party best represents their interests.

Garden cities might be popular with NIMBYs who don’t fancy a new development going up on the outskirts of their village, but are they what generation rent is looking for?

People want to live near their workplace, so the need for new houses is invariably in cities where jobs are being created; they also happen to be prevented from growing by the green belt. True, you can build new towns outside the green belt and rely on rail and road connections to get people into work, but you risk ending up with bland dormitories where people have no time or energy to sustain a lively leisure economy; and while they might save on housing they end up spending more on transport.

Would you be happy to commute across the green belt, and forego the attractions of the big city on your doorstep if it meant lower housing costs?

What would garden cities need to offer to make you want to move to one?