This post is inspired by somewhat local concerns. My home council, Tunbridge Wells, published its draft Local Plan on Friday,* and is proposing a  bold and highly imaginative solution to meeting its housing need:  an entirely new settlement located in Tudeley Village, together with a major urban extension in Paddock Wood.

From a local perspective, the proposals make a great deal of sense. Tunbridge Wells is highly constrained, with large parts of the borough covered by either the High Weald AONB or Metropolitan Green Belt - so there are limited opportunities for development of the scale required to meet the growing housing needs of the borough.

The proposed  urban extension at Paddock Wood falls largely outside of the AONB and the Green Belt. The new Garden Village would require greater release of Green Belt land, but would be well connected and the provision of a new settlement would also allow for significant improvements to local infrastructure. There is also a lot to be said for taking a holistic approach to planning for housing delivery - starting from the ground up does give the opportunity to build a properly functioning, sustainable, community, which is a rare prospect these days (largely because of the challenges in finding suitable areas of land on which to do so).

It is that last point that got me thinking - on the rare occasions that you have the space, time, and resources to bring them forward - are new settlements actually the best solution to the housing crisis? 

The idea of the Garden Village is currently having a bit of a renaissance. The Government has committed funding to support 43 new settlements in the last few years (including 19 new projects announced in June - see below). It is not, however, a new concept. The British tradition of building entire communities, based around the concepts of healthy and sustainable living, can be traced all the way back to the 'model villages' of the 19th Century, such as Bournville  or New Lanark. The latest iteration of the concept has a great deal in common with its predecessors.

A true 'Garden Village' is designed around the following principles:

  • Strong vision, leadership and community engagement;
  • Long term stewardship of land and assets;
  • Mixed-tenure homes and housing types - with a focus on affordability;
  • Ensuring a wide range of employment opportunities in easy commuting distance;
  • Ensuring high quality design of homes, public realm and open spaces;
  • Enhancing the natural environment and net biodiversity, with strong provision of green infrastructure and green technology
  • Integrated and sustainable transport; and
  • Ensuring strong cultural, retail and leisure opportunities within easy walking distance.

When these projects work well, they can deliver thriving and well thought out new settlements, with a strong sense of community. When they go badly, they can go very badly indeed,** or simply create dormitory towns with little of interest to recommend them.

 The difference between success and failure seems to come down to three things:

  1. Master Planning - to make sure that the communities and well thought out and well balanced.
  2. Genuine commitment to the project from all major stakeholders, including landowners, local authorities, developers and infrastructure providers; and
  3. A focus on long term maintenance and stewardship - to ensure that open spaces and communities facilities do not wither on the vine, and to attract employers and residents to the area.

It also helps if thought is given at the outset to the challenges that will crop up with delivery - site assembly, master planning, funding and infrastructure provision for these communities is challenging. Which is why the choice of location for a new settlement is so vital.  That said, done well it provides an amazing opportunity to do something really special - that not only gives a huge boost to local housing numbers - but also creates real community benefits in the long term.

Given the time and effort involved in bringing new settlements forward, and getting them right,  Garden Villages are unlikely to solve the Housing Crisis on their own; but they are definitely able to make a valuable contribution. 

Planning is, at its heart, about building communities after all.

* the consultation runs to 1st November and can be accessed here

** some examples of poorly designed new communities can be found in some of the brutalist estates of the 1960s.