Garden villages – are they as green as they seem?

The Stop SGC protestors at the site outside Frome. Courtesy of Stop SGC

In August 2018 the government set out proposals for the creation of ‘garden communities’, intended to tackle the chronic shortage of housing in the UK and raise the standard of building development.  The name consciously harks back to the ‘Garden City’ vision of Ebenezer Howard but also reflects one of the stock cliches of property developers.  Everyone loves a garden it seems, so we are promised new ‘Garden Villages’ of up to 10,000 homes and ‘Garden Towns’ that are even larger. The aim is described as building “communities with local character, good employment opportunities, strong services, integrated and accessible transport, innovative uses of technology – and beautiful green spaces.” Who could possibly object?

More pragmatically, a key aim of the initiative is to build at a sufficient scale to fund an increase in local amenities – schools, surgeries and the like. Mechanisms like development corporations are capable of capturing the rise in land values created by planning and investing it in community resources.  It can work well as some of our new towns have shown. Whether these aspirations will survive prolonged contact with the powerful property lobby however remains to be seen.  After all there has to be a reason why this industry has donated some £60 million to the Conservative Party over the past decade.

At present there are plans to build 200,000 houses in 14 garden villages across the country including Culm in Devon and West Carclaze in Cornwall.  Taunton is one of three garden towns which promise “transformational development of an existing settlement, both in nature and in scale.”  In each case there is a beautifully-produced prospectus with soft focus photography and soaring rhetoric, but not enough detail to show whether it is good value for the community.

Not on the list is the Selwood Garden Community (SGC) near Frome, which originally described itself as Selwood Garden Village.  Although it is not one of the 14 developments that the government is backing under its garden village programme, the SGC mimics them with a prospectus of the same style and appearance. It states for example that

“SGC will transform privately-owned agricultural land into community meadows, woodlands, orchards, parks, and allotments creating a rich network of green spaces bringing nature into the fabric of the community.” 

It does not emphasise that it plans to put 1,700 houses on a 200-acre green field site.

Locals opposed to these proposals have set up a campaign group Stop SGC. Their concerns include the loss of green space that has been enjoyed informally by local residents, the destruction of trees and hedgerows that shelter wildlife and increased pollution from extra traffic movements. Speaking for the campaign group Joe Hannam Maggs says

“’We urge everyone including Mendip District council to look at the details and question the real impact. Once the fields in Little Keyford are gone, they are gone forever.”

The campaigners claim that the planned increase in population is not matched by an increase in community resources. The design, they say, also risks locking in dependency on cars when we should be focussing on active travel solutions.

The gap between the aspirations for a high-quality public realm and the reality of development is similarly evident in Taunton. A recent example was the approval of a huge new roundabout on the A38, to give access to the Comeytrowe urban extension. Mike Ginger of the Taunton Area Cycling Campaign says “The roundabout will be a monument to ‘predict and provide’ for cars but not a welcoming gateway to a ‘Garden Town’. The junction’s design is inherently hostile to active travel which the Garden Town Vision aspires to encourage”

Concerns about car-centred development are supported by the pressure group Transport for New Homes. Their recent research shows that the environmental ambitions set out  for garden villages are not well-reflected in their plans. As they state, “Put forward by the government as an alternative to characterless estates, Garden Villages may well end up with more tarmac than garden, limited public transport, and few ‘village’ amenities to walk or cycle to.”  If that is true of the flagship schemes that the government is promoting how much more likely is it to result from ones driven purely by private interests?

There is however another angle on this story. Stop SGC argue that “Few of the houses will ever be ‘affordable’ and there are no plans for the social rented homes that Frome really needs.” This is probably true. Frome is an attractive location for many who cannot afford to buy a house in Bath. Much of the new housing is likely to be taken by commuters rather than some of the 500 on the local housing register. Yet when Mendip District Council put forward plans to build social housing within the town that too fell foul of objections.

In an ambitious attempt to address local housing needs Mendip had identified a dozen sites that it owned across Frome and was prepared make them available to housing associations at no cost.  Together the 12 sites would have provided over 100 homes for the social rented sector.  Unlike so-called ‘affordable’ homes that are, in effect, offered at 80% of the local market rate, social housing rents are set with reference to local wage levels which in Mendip tend to be low.

None of the 12 sites however seem likely to be developed.  A major reason is that green spaces within a town are highly valued by those who live near them and plans to build on them rapidly become the focus of fierce opposition.   Those who oppose developments near their homes tend to be energetic and focussed.  Those standing to benefit from more social housing are not similarly organised and cannot personally identify with any specific plot.

There is undoubtedly an element of ‘nimbyism’ (not in my back yard) in relation to social housing developments for which environmental concerns can provide an acceptable cloak.  Brown field sites should certainly be considered first but in many areas are inadequate to meet local needs. If locals oppose developments within towns and on green spaces outside where indeed is new housing to come from?

There is a real disconnect between the strong desire of local people to help shape their community and the lack of powers to do anything about it.  People want (and need) access to green space. They want access to infrastructure for walking and cycling, schools and surgeries close to where they live, homes that people can afford as opposed to just being labelled “affordable”. Yet under present arrangements all they feel they can do is wait until a proposal driven by private profit comes forward and try to amend or stop it.

Despite this the government is still pushing ahead with controversial proposals that would weaken the role of local authorities in relation to planning still further.  Rather than weaken them we need to strengthen their powers so that they can take the initiative in building the sorts of communities that people want. For it to work however people will have to accept that on occasions development on green field sites can be justified.  If the vision set out for garden villages could be achieved in practice, they could well form part of the solution.