Miles Gibson is the Prize Director for the Wolfson Economics Prize 2014. For more information about the Wolfson Economics Prize visit www.wolfson.org.uk.
Writing on Conservative Home, Harry Phibbs argued in favour of garden cities provided they have local consent. And politicians contributing to the debate recently all agree that local delivery depends on local legitimacy. So this year’s Wolfson Economics Prize on garden cities starts from the same assumption: the prize invites entrants to consider how a new garden city could be made popular with residents – rather than foisted upon them against their will.
But even the vaguest of news stories about garden city proposals for (say) Oxfordshire or Buckinghamshire has been enough to demonstrate that local consent is, to put it mildly, not readily forthcoming. So whatever is said at national level about the need for consent and legitimacy, and whatever national consensus may exist about the need for new housing to tackle socially divisive house price and rent inflation, local consent is often extremely difficult to achieve in practice.
It is at this point that the debate largely grinds to a halt in resigned muttering about NIMBYism or it “all being too difficult.”
If we are to deliver the housing we need, the debate needs to be moved on. But how?
We should start by accepting that NIMBYism is perfectly rational. Communities are entitled to worry about the costs and benefits of new development, and may well fear it, for three main reasons:
- First, if the development is poor quality it will be an eyesore and we will all regret it. Harry Phibbs recommends the involvement of the Prince of Wales. HRH’s particular tastes in the design of new settlements may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is certainly essential that garden cities are inspiring and pleasant places. Indeed, the one obvious feature that a garden city must have is, of course, gardens – either literally or in the form of parks, allotments, squares, playgrounds, and a very liberal sprinkling of trees. Add in some proper cycle paths, space to park a car and a vibrant new high street with homes and offices above the shops, and you have a place to live that actually sounds…well, quite nice.
- Second, if local services and infrastructure cannot accommodate the needs of newcomers then they will become congested and overburdened. But equally often, new residents could make the difference between life and death for a struggling and under-threat primary school, library, post office or pub. However, this may not be obvious to locals who want to see infrastructure supported and improved. As it happens, if infrastructure money is needed, Eric Pickles may be able to provide it: his department has quietly been running a loan fund (now worth £1bn) for the infrastructure needed to support housing developments of more than 1,500 homes – again provided there is community support. And since 2010 councils can also impose an infrastructure levy on developments to fund new services.
- Third, existing homeowners worry about the impact of new development on the value of their own homes. Quite what impact development actually has is difficult to determine in the abstract, but it is certainly not true that development automatically depreciates its neighbours. If this were true, no-one would be buying property next to the Olympic Park. Development which raises quality on average will raise prices on average, especially if it is careful to protect the best natural landscape and biodiversity in the area (another good reason for those gardens and parks), and if it guards against flood risk (yes, yet another good reason for those gardens and parks).
One way through these concerns may be to consider afresh the role of compensation, incentives and ways of giving people a long-term financial interest in the success of their communities. The debate over incentives relating to fracking and wind turbines shows that this too is a fraught and controversial area, but let’s look at what’s already available for housing.
For every house built the Government already offers £9,000 in New Homes Bonus payments. In an area of acute housing shortage the community infrastructure levy mentioned above would perhaps add a further £20,000 per house. So a garden city of 20,000 homes, at a total of £30,000 per home, would generate £600m of one-off income.
Let’s say half of that income goes on new infrastructure, and let’s say there are 500 firm objectors to the scheme in the villages nearest to this hypothetical development site. If there is £300m available for those 500 households, that works out at £600,000 per household. It would be an intriguing piece of market research to explore whether, if each were offered £600,000 worth of shares in the local development company that builds the houses, those objectors would still feel it was in their interests to object. To existing residents (usually older) this may be resented as a bribe; to new residents (usually younger) it may equally be resented as a ransom. And the irony is that the existing resident and the ‘new resident’ may well be father and son. Even more ironically they may already be living in the same house, to the satisfaction of neither. Either way, it is clear that local residents perceive that the balance of costs and benefits of development is heavily weighted against them, and that only a shift in this balance is going to permit housing development at scale to happen.
These issues of consent, incentives, and doubts about new development are a key issue for the Wolfson Economics Prize, which asks entrants to show how garden city proposals could be made popular with local residents. This is hardly straightforward: but the £250,000 top prize ought to be enough to encourage the brightest brains to come forward with their ideas. Everyone agrees that local consent will be required for garden cities. So the Prize aims to move the debate on and answer the question: but how?