Garden Villages and Starter Homes – when will the tinkering end and the concentrated, focused housebuilding programme begin?


It comes round like clockwork – barely had Big Ben bonged us into 2017, than the government sent out glad tidings of new housing policy announcements; and not just one but two.
First out of the traps was a promise to make good on the ministerial pledge – made back in 2014 and badged as the Starter Homes Land Fund – to help first-time buyers get a foot on the housing ladder.  When they are built, these homes will be available for anyone between the ages of 23 and 40 buying their first home and represent a 20 percent discount on properties worth up to £250,000 outside London or £450,000 in the capital.
Then came the announcement to build 48,000 homes in 14 garden towns and villages. Anyone who is connected – or for that matter not connected – to the property market will know how short of housing the UK is. Over the years, there have been various attempts by the government in one guise or another, to increase the numbers of new homes being built and this is the latest welcome attempt. More details are expected in the White Paper due to be published shortly about how exactly these schemes will work. This is vital as the ‘how’ in terms of housing schemes is usually as, if not more, important, than the ‘where, what, why and who’. Garden cities have had a mixed success rate since Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City were built as part of the wave of 27 new towns following the second world war. One of the key elements of success behind these schemes was the principle of ‘land value capture’, allowing public infrastructure to benefit from the rise in value they created in their neighbours – thus preventing it from disappearing into private hands. Not only that but the first wave of 14 new towns was imposed from central government, often in the face of strong local objections comparing the then Labour government with the Stalinist USSR. It may have been unpopular with those directly affected, but there’s no doubting the success in terms of housebuilding – for example, new home completions in Milton Keynes alone averaged 5,000 a year from 1967 to 1991.
New towns as a policy died a political death until Gordon Brown dug out and reheated the idea, promising in party conference speeches to build first five and then, ten eco towns. Unfortunately, despite the rhetoric, these resulted in a grand total of zero new homes being built due in part to vociferous protest against them. Next up was the garden city at Ebbsfleet, north Kent, promised by the last government but even there, progress has been slow – and that is with the benefit of top notch transport links nationally and internationally on its doorstep.
So far, this government has fought shy of mandating housebuilding from the centre, preferring instead to rely on the market with a few inducements around the edges.
This week’s announcements reflect the government’s reliance on localism – communities being empowered, at the expense of the national centre, to take care of their own housing needs. This runs through the entire public policy agenda and planning/housebuilding is no different – scrapping top-down targets and allowing local communities to plan for their own needs to cite just two initiatives.
The White Paper is a chance to take account of instances in which previous policies have not worked and to think through how to put those right. A number of lessons are clear – local plans must include demand for housing coming in from outside the area; new communities need to be carefully located and not just dumped on a spare patch of ground; media coverage of housing policies is good……but new homes are better.
Some questions will have to be answered in this month’s anticipated White Paper. Is the country willing to accept the pragmatism that something is better than nothing – i.e., have we given up on recreating successful new towns such as Welwyn and Letchworth? Are local communities and central government willing and able to build communities as well as huge housing estates? Will central government break the habit of a lifetime and decide to invest directly to build the homes the country needs?
When will the tinkering end and the concentrated, focused housebuilding programme begin?

Leave a Reply