Edward Dawson is Director of Campaign for Rural England [CPRE].  He has been a Conservative Party activist for many years, and a councillor and parliamentary candidate.

Garden cities and new settlements seem to be in vogue again. I say “again”, because they have existed for a long time in a kind of fourth dimension.  But now, new towns are being promoted to solve the housing problem.  The Wolfson Economics Prize recently revealed its shortlist, as well as a poll which purports to show public support for garden cities to meet our housing need.

New settlements – whether called garden cities after the original Edwardian invention of Ebenezer Howard, or New Towns reflecting the name given to developments authorised by the 1946 New Towns Act – may excite planners, but leave others cold.  Since the end of the public sector New Towns programme in the 1970s, there have been many proposals for new settlements, but few ever seem to get started. Wholly new towns which are not joined to or extend an existing urban area have little chance of approval.  And this is not simply because of a Nimby backlash, but because the commitment is too great for either the Treasury or private developers: not just houses, but major infrastructure such as roads and railway stations, a main centre and shops, schools and health clinics, parks and public halls all need to be provided.

The Wolfson competition seems a good time to consider what has happened to new town ideas, and the potential role they might play in answering the housing crisis.

A genuine new settlement has not been approved since the 1960s.  At that time, Richard Crossman, Harold Wilson’s Housing Minster, decided to approve two new settlements in quick succession: the new city of Milton Keynes and a new village in the Kent Green Belt, New Ash Green.  Milton Keynes also became a focal point for new jobs.  New Ash Green caused a storm of protest, and has always been an eccentric development; no similar settlement has been approved since.

Milton Keynes, almost the last New Town to be approved, was to be the biggest, aiming for a population of 250,000. It has not reached that yet: the 2011 census showed the figure as less than 230,000, and that is after 45 years.  It’s also meant to be a ‘forest city’ rather than a garden city, with millions of trees.  Ten years ago, John Prescott announced he would double the population by 2026, via a new Milton Keynes Partnership, but this was dissolved in 2011 and the plan quietly dropped.  Simon Wolfson takes his lordly name from Aspley Guise, and it’s a pretty village, but it spends most of it time trying to fend off the advance of Milton Keynes into Bedfordshire.

CPRE says garden cities may be part of the solution, but only if are locally supported, help to regenerate our existing cities and provide lots of affordable housing.  It is worth examining this response.  Local support is needed – no one would deny that – but regeneration only happens if development takes place within urban envelopes.  As for affordable housing, does this mean subsidised social housing?  That could mean that new towns will be filled with people on low incomes or no income.  That in turn could condemn new towns to becoming sink estates for those without much prospect of advancement.  It is fine to laud the affordability of housing, but new towns will surely need to sell their homes – in other words be part of the normal housing market.

Though new towns are back in vogue, there is much talk (and PR fed to the media) but little action: they are not a ready solution to a perceived shortage of housing.  The time taken to plan and consult is too long; it is better to improve the design of urban areas and the transport links.

Mini new towns do sometimes squeeze through the cracks.  For example, Elvetham Heath, placed north of Fleet in Hampshire for a mere 1800 houses, is nearly complete, but it was first mooted in 1986. Such settlements have few social facilities and may lack public transport and secondary schools.  The private sector acting alone has never been successful, either.  Take the debacle over Foxley Wood in north-east Hampshire.  In 1989, this private sector proposal was refused by Chris Patten, who told me it was the best decision he ever made.  Micheldever Station, a new town near Winchester, was proposed in 1990 and on more recent occasions revived; but for all the efforts and fees for Barton Willmore, the high-quality farmland proposed for building remains untouched.  The Prince of Wales’s Poundbury initiative has fared better, but it is an urban extension of Dorchester, not a new settlement, and has as yet no imitators.

The Labour Government had a brief encounter in 2007-10 with Eco-towns, such as those at Whitehill Bordon in south-west Surrey and Ford in West Sussex.  Bordon appeared to be the one location that would go ahead but, more recently, it had funding cut amid accusations of rigging public consultations and side-stepping the normal planning process.  Labour Ministers seem to succumb to the blandishments of the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), the main lobby group for new settlements, but these icons of sustainable living seem destined not leave the drawing board.

This is not to say that new towns have no merit – just that people don’t like them.  Ebbsfleet is the next choice, by Bluewater in Eastern Quarry, and may yield no other useful purpose.  The problem with these smaller settlements is that they are not self-sustaining in the mode of Howard.  They depend heavily on commuting, as does New Ash Green, and people are entombed in them.

Nor do residents like to have ‘new town’ or ‘new suburb’ in their addresses.  Westerton Garden Suburb, north-west of Glasgow, is a nice development on Ebenezer Howard lines which started in 1913.  However, people prefer to give their address as Bearsden, the posher suburb to the north and the seventh richest postcode area in the UK. If ‘Foxley Wood’ had ever happened, would residents of it have claimed to live in fact in Hartley Wintney, the elegantly-named Hampshire village to the south?

It is not a competition we need, but leadership and vision.  New towns alone are not the answer.  They cannot be ‘instead of’, rather ‘as well as’.  It is also doubtful if the South-East needs anything more to feed London, which may look to a new round of ‘overspill’.  It is better to make our cities liveable and affordable; if not, Lord Wolfson’s plan seems destined to adorn the pantheon of quaint shelved schemes.