The Government has announced its backing for 14 new “garden villages” and another three “garden towns”. Seven new garden towns had already been approved – Bicester, Basingstoke, Didcot, Ebbsfleet, Aylesbury, Taunton and North Northants. If the plans announced this week are fulfilled that would mean up to 48,000 new homes – bringing the potential tally from all the garden towns and villages announced so far to 200,000. (The “garden villages” are defined as being 1,500 to 10,000 homes each.)
One obvious measure of success will be if the new homes are actually built. Will strong opposition cause years of delay and then the plans scaled down or abandoned as local councillors (quite properly) represent the views of their residents?
There is plenty of planning jargon about sustainability, feasibility and so on. The Nimbys have learnt the lingo in order for their objections to be accepted as legally valid. But the question really is whether the new developments will be ugly or attractive places to live. If they do get built, will they be regarded as examples to follow – or serve of warnings of the horrors of what to avoid?
The initial evidence is that it will vary. For example among the garden towns announced earlier it is already apparent that Ebbsfleet will look awful. Among the garden towns announced this week the indications for “Harlow & Gilston” are worrying. Property developers are advised that Harlow Council “already has in place a Design Guide” for the “highest standards of contemporary design”. For planning officers “contemporary” is code for modernist – the message being to choose an architect who will offer dire concoctions of glass and concrete for which he will then win an award.
When we look at the proposed “garden villages” alarm bells ring regarding Bailrigg in Lancaster, This is because “Lancaster University will be a key partner” in the plans and the new homes will be near its hideous campus. Often requiring that new buildings are sympathetic to their surroundings is a mechanism for beauty and tradition. But I’m afraid if the new village is told to blend in with Lancaster University then no good can come of it.
In other cases the evidence of what these new communities will look like is very limited. For Dunton Hills near Brentwood there are some general promises of “high quality” design. There is quite strong opposition to what is proposed – if there could be some clarification given that it will be a joy to behold then surely the extent of that opposition would recede. I have also been able to gather what the garden village in North Cheshire will look like – although if the claim that they will be guided by the preferences of existing local residents is sincere then there is little to fear. Trust the people.
Then there are the curate’s eggs among the garden villages – such as Longcross near Runnymede or West Carclaze in Cornwall. Judging by the initial evidence it would be harsh to say these will be ugly places – but generous to say they will be beautiful ones.
Some of the other proposals look much more heartening. The plans for the redundant Long Marston airfield near Stratford-upon-Avon look splendid. Ditto the proposals for a garden village in West Oxfordshire.
Deenethorpe in East Northants sounds like another winner. The prospectus is explicit in saying that the new village will be “traditional in character and scale based on the success of attractive Northants villages.”
In the long run, millions of new homes are needed. Even if only a few of the garden villages and towns announced so far prove to be aesthetic triumphs they could prove hugely influential. The Bimbys can turn the Nimbys into Yimbys. “I don’t mind a new garden village provided it looks like Deenethorpe or Long Marston or Poundbury or….” will be the varied rallying cry in the different counties of England. If there is some healthy competition spurred on by local pride that is all to the good. If some areas can build new homes using well established local materials and characteristics then why can’t others?