A new garden city for England

Ebbsfleet in Kent has been earmarked to become home to the first new ‘garden city’ in the country in a century – but it’ll be a drop in the ocean of our housing needs, says Simon Wilson.

What has been proposed?

Chancellor George Osborne this week announced the creation of Britain’s first new ‘garden city’ for almost 100 years. The area earmarked for this grandiose vision is at a site close to Ebbsfleet International railway station on the north Kent coast east of Dartford and west of Gravesend, opposite the old docks at Tilbury across the river.

Osborne has promised £200m of investment for a town that will initially consist of 15,000 houses providing accommodation for between 23,000 and 34,000 residents. That’s not a big town, but it’s not insignificant; about the size of Chichester or Lichfield, or slightly smaller than Salisbury.

What is a garden city?

Strictly speaking, it is a new town built on the model of Ebenezer Howard’s garden city movement in England, which succeeded in getting the first two such cities – Letchworth and Welwyn – built in the early 20th century (see below).

The prototype involves radial boulevards, a high proportion of open spaces and parks, a green belt around a relatively small town, an unusually low population density (Howard stipulated 25 houses per acre) and a self-supporting economy that allows residents to live and work in the same town.

Why Ebbsfleet?

According to Osborne, “there is the land available, there is fantastic infrastructure, with a high-speed line” – the HS1 from St Pancras to Europe – meaning that the site is only 19 minutes to central London by train.

Also, “it’s on the river, it’s in the southeast of England where a lot of the housing pressure has been, and, crucially, we’ve got local communities and local MPs who support the idea”. The area is well-connected, close to the M25 and A2.

The Bluewater Shopping Centre, with 300 stores, is already a big local employer, and a planned Paramount theme park is expected to create another 25,000 jobs. It helps, too, that the Labour party is strongly in favour; Labour peer Andrew Adonis is a notable long-term campaigner for a new town at Ebbsfleet.

Does this all sound familiar?

Yes. Proposals for a large-scale development of Kent’s old chalk pits around Swanscombe and industrial sites in the Ebbsfleet valley were first put forward almost 20 years ago, championed by the then deputy PM Michael Heseltine.

Planning permission for 6,000 new houses was granted in 2007, and in 2012 plans for 22,600 houses were agreed with Land Securities, a property development company – but nothing has been built.

A recent think tank report co-authored by Lord Adonis blamed years of stalled development along the Thames estuary on a combination of factors: the recession, complex planning negotiations among three local authorities, and the risk to developers on such a grand scale.

So will it work?

There’s no reason to think it can’t be built. (As local Tory councillor Jeremy Kite told The Guardian: “I think if we’re serious about providing housing for people, sooner or later someone’s got to build the buggers”.) But whether it will prove the first in a wave of new towns that alleviate Britain’s long-term housing crisis is a more open question.

If the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is correct in its estimate that another million new houses are needed by 2022, then we will need another 65 Ebbsfleets in the next decade.

At best, Ebbsfleet might provide 20,000 new houses sometime in the 2020s – which is what London needs every six months to keep up with demand. Across England, we need 100,000 more houses annually – the equivalent of another Milton Keynes each year.

Will politics hold things up?

The Lib Dems accuse the Tories of stalling on making more big announcements for fear of upsetting ‘nimbyist’ voters. Labour leader Ed Miliband has promised that, if Labour wins next year’s election, it “will kickstart the next generation of new towns and garden cities around the capital to ease the pressure on London” and will match the 1945 Labour government by “building at least 200,000 decent homes a year by 2020”.

If anything approaching this scale of house building is to become a reality, a modest new town on the Kent coast will be a drop in the ocean. In coming decades, the debate on housing will involve major urban renewal, revival of rundown city areas and increasing housing densities and constructing new towns in controversial areas such as Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

“This is the reality that few people, including Osborne, are yet willing to admit,” says Daniel Knowles in The Times. “Until they do, we will have to make do with overpriced homes – and endless announcements of the latest plans at Ebbsfleet.”

A home for quacks and sandal-wearers

George Osborne is perhaps an unlikely successor to the father of the garden city movement, the utopian social reformer Ebenezer Howard (or Ebenezer, the ‘Garden City Geezer’, as he was dubbed by his chum George Bernard Shaw).

Howard, born in 1850, was a parliamentary reporter for Hansard who founded the movement in 1899 and raised the money to build the first garden city, Letchworth, from 1903.

In the early decades, Letchworth was seen as a grand social experiment, and its residents mocked for their “alternative” lifestyles. George Orwell famously remarked that, along with socialists and communists, the new community had attracted “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, nature cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England”.

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