By Chris Walker, Head of Housing and Planning at Policy Exchange.
Last year, Policy Exchange published its Garden Villages report, which proposed a new way of building the homes England needs – namely, through entirely new, small-scale, settlements of between 1,500 and 5,000 new homes each. This would be instead of just building the homes on the edges of our existing cities and towns, in a way so often fans the flames of NIMBYism. The proposals involve giving local authorities new powers to acquire the land for new garden villages and to do so cheaply – namely at low current use values, instead of the very high values for land permissioned for housing development.
But to make garden villages happen through the localism model we have proposed, and on a scale that would have meaningful impact on Britain’s housing need at the national level, there needs to be sufficient local authority appetite for them. Accordingly, we collaborated with the think tank Localis to conduct a survey of local authority members and officials, in order to measure their support for the idea.
The survey was sent to chief executives, chief economic officers, chief housing and planning officers, as well as council leaders, deputy leaders and planning committee chairs. Localis received 128 responses from these senior executives, and we summarise the results here.
Encouragingly, 62 per cent of respondents said they would either strongly support or support the idea of creating a new garden village in their local authority area, to help meet housing need. 69 per cent said that having the option to create a garden village would be very helpful or helpful in contributing to delivering their housing growth needs.
But the question of whether there are enough suitable sites out there for garden villages remains, particularly in the less rural local authorities. Nonetheless, the survey suggested that new garden villages are a realistic proposition for delivering housing growth for many local authorities, with 51 per cent of respondents saying they are either very realistic or realistic (35 per cent said unrealistic or not at all realistic).
The Government announced last summer that all local authorities would be required to produce a local plan by early 2017, or else have one put in place by the Government on their behalf – localism, it seems, far from being a “Nimby’s Charter”, is about responsibilities as well as rights. Nonetheless, 2017 is not far away and this target remains extremely challenging especially for the 35 per cent of local authorities that do not currently have an adopted local plan.
So could giving local authorities the option to create a garden village make it easier for them? Our survey shows that having the ability to create a garden village could make a real contribution: 61 per cent of respondents said giving local authorities the option of creating a garden village would be very helpful or helpful in getting more local plans in place throughout England.
As local authorities become ever more resource-constrained, simplicity has to be at the heart of such local authority empowerment and policy effectiveness. This means a simple policy package and process (a so-called “green button”) that local planners could initiate to enable them to establish a new Garden Village. In our survey, 67 per cent of respondents said this simplicity would be very helpful or helpful.
No-one is arguing that garden villages are a silver bullet to England’s housing crisis, but this survey provides further evidence that they could be a big help. If every one of the 200 predominantly rural local authorities built a garden village, then as many as a million homes could be built over ten years. Crucially, though, it would be through the grain of localism and not by top-down imposition from Whitehall.