Even were all immigration to stop tomorrow, and the family patterns of the 1950s to be restored, we would need more houses. Last year saw the lowest number of housing completions since the 1920s. Home ownership is at its lowest since the 1980s. The youngest are losing out most. And Britain’s new homes are smaller than in other comparable countries. The temptation for government is either to ignore the problem entirely, and trust that older, home-owning voters won’t revolt at the injustice done to their younger, non home-owning children, or seek simply to drive through lots of new developments on green belt – by instructing planning inspectors to force new homes on unwilling communities by turning down local plans and giving developers carte blanche. Conservatives MPs queue up to say the latter is happening each time there is a debate in Westminster Hall.
As Alex Morton wrote repeatedly on this site, one solution to the housing problem is a trade-off whereby local people get compensation for new build, on brownfield and some green. But there is also sense in minimising the political pain of new build by concentrating building in new garden cities. This should not, repeat not, mean a repeat of Gordon Brown’s wretched “eco-town” fiasco (there was nothing particularly “eco” about them), for which housing density was planned in some area to be at inner city levels.
George Osborne’s proclamation of a new garden city in Ebbsfleet yesterday is therefore a step in the right direction. Admittedly, it is arguable whether 15,000 new homes really represents a new city, let alone a garden one, and there are claims that the announcement is actually a re-announcement. But the plan has the support of local MPs, local councils (though, like the LGA, they may not like the Heseltine-style urban development corporation that will go with it), and the Mayor of London. Above all, it is in the right place. As Peter Franklin wrote in his Deep End column on this site recently, “it does seem ridiculous that we should be scrabbling around for land in the South East – even contemplating the destruction of the green belt – when such a large and strategically-located area is in such obvious need of regeneration.”
Ebenezer Howard, the founder of the Garden City movement, believed that his ideas for marrying the best of town and country offered “the key to the problem how to restore the people to the land…for it is the key to a portal through which, even when scarce ajar, will be seen to pour a flood of light on the problems of intemperance, of excessive toil, of restless anxiety, of grinding poverty — the true limits of Governmental interference, ay, and even the relations of man to the Supreme Power.” (He set them out in his “Garden Cities of Tomorrow.”)
To today’s eye, Howard’s language is ornate and his plans over-prescriptive. But if the Ebbsfleet plan is to be worthy of the Garden City label, it must possess some of his idealism, and avoid the traps that Brown’s “eco-towns” blundered into. That means getting the design right: to this day, Letchworth and Welwyn, Britain’s first two Garden Cities, take pride in their original achievements. It is true that there is no consensus over what does and doesn’t constitute good design. (Poundbury, say, isn’t to everyone’s taste.) But local consent for whatever is proposed isn’t a bad place to start. The Chancellor will know as well as anyone else that the Ebbsfleet plan won’t solve the south-east’s housing problem, let alone the rest of the country’s. It is time to get thinking about where future garden cities might go. The ConsevativeHome manifesto will take an interest in the question.