Sunday 25 November 2012

Clegg’s garden cities, and a drunken evening

I once wangled an invitation to the fabled Scottish Whisky Industry Association reception while attending a Tory conference for professional reasons during the Major government.

Unsurprisingly, I can remember little about the event. But I can remember trying to discuss planning for housebuilding in the south east with three Tory MPs who were even drunker than I was.

I was reminded of this event by Nick Clegg’s latest letter to Liberal Democrat members, in which he calls for “new garden cities totalling a million new homes in the next ten years,” to meet the housing crisis.

Clegg argues that it is possible to do this “without building on any green belt, National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty” and that this would be a more attractive alternative than creating further urban sprawl:
Instead of eating away at the green belt, we can build big and even designate new green belt around new towns and cities.
We could easily build. And by doing it we could deliver homes people can afford in places they want to live.
He might be right, but if he wants to pursue this idea, he will have to be prepared to take on Middle England.

Since there is no point in building a garden city where there is insufficient employment to sustain one, or where house prices are relatively low anyway, what we are talking about here really is the south, East Anglia and parts of the Midlands.

As far back as 1992, Tory MPs had formed a group called Sane Planning to fight their own government’s attempts to encourage housebuilding in these areas, confident of the warm approval of their constituents.

Under the last Labour government, an attempt was made to create a chain of ‘eco-towns’ – a concept not much removed from garden cities. The response was foaming outrage, lawsuits and considerable political hostility, albeit most eco-towns were proposed for areas with few Labour voters anyway.

As far as I know, only two eco-towns/garden cities are now being developed, both on isolated former military sites – consequently with much of the infrastructure in place – and both in booming Cambridgeshire, at Alconbury and Northstowe.

Elsewhere, past experience suggests that Nick Clegg can expect an uphill battle against a combination of those who oppose rural development (whether from selfish or altruistic motives), genuine environmentalists who fear a ‘Trojan Horse’ effect, and landowners whose acreage would be less likely to be developed if garden cities went ahead.

Even if he finds usable sites, they must not just be suitable for housing but also be either near some large-scale source of employment or be capable of having substantial local employment created in them.

His argument has merits, but he may find that increasing urban sprawl by piecemeal stealth gets more homes built than will awaking the ire of objectors to new towns.

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