View from the roof

By Rob Hopwood, Planning Partner at Bidwells LLP


The government recently announced 14 new garden villages and three garden towns. Why are these making a comeback?

Simply put, it is another string to the Government’s bow to get more homes delivered but it will take time.

What makes them different? The key difference between the planning and delivery of garden settlements when compared to other large scale developments is that they need, from the very beginning, a clear vision, commitment and leadership. They have very long lead-in times from planning to delivery of the masterplan on the ground, anything between 15-30 years depending on the scale of the settlement. They are different from what might be termed suburban ‘bolt-ons’, a term which we in the profession do not use for urban extensions. They will need to be properly designed with people at their heart and based on the best attributes from the rural and urban fabric, taking the essence from Ebenezer Howard’s key principles from his work on the ‘garden cities of tomorrow’ from 1902.

There is rarely anything new in the thinking for large scale development and we can learn a lot from Letchworth and Welwyn Garden cities, but of course we can bring into play innovative and sustainable features to make them environmentally, economically and socially attractive and successful. The key difference for me is that garden villages need to be ‘green’ with plenty of open space, a variety in the design of houses and public buildings and, looking to the future, the need to build in improved health, social wellbeing and mindfulness , which is the new mantra from the NHS and other health organisations. Garden settlements have the potential to can create the right environment to make them the very best places to live in!

What are the sustainability pros and cons?

One could argue that the land needed for a new garden settlement would be unsustainable but of course the development needs to be located somewhere. There will be a mix of brownfield and greenfield sites on which these new communities can be built, many of which are old MOD bases. The big plus is that a significant proportion of all the requirements for a self-contained community can be provided in one place, excepting general employment journeys. Building a new garden settlement in its own location away from other major urban areas would mean less disturbance to the local people generally over a longer period of time. By building a good number of new garden settlements across the country there will be a spread of strategic scale developments which will help to meet the needs for housing and which will hopefully present unique and attractive environments which can be used as exemplars in the future, moving away from the monotony of many large urban estates.

What does a garden village need to have to make it sustainable?

New garden settlements can range from between 1500 to 40000 dwellings in scale but for it to be seen to be sustainable I would suggest that a critical mass of about 5000 dwellings is needed to provide the right level of education, health and job opportunities. 5000 dwellings would require a secondary school/college and for me a key feature must be to cater for the different generations, that is children, parents and grandparents all being able to live close together in the same village. In this way, the planned accommodation must have a range and mix of housing but must cater for the over 55’s to be able to downsize to make way for families. But sustainability is not just about conserving raw materials and reducing our carbon footprint...

What are the infrastructure and community implications?

Infrastructure wise, we have a big problem rumbling on the horizon, and that is the diminishing supply of raw materials, water, and power. The construction industry needs to look to new ways of planning and building, the use of prefabrication is making a come-back and with 3D printers anything is possible! A lot of materials are needed to build and service new garden villages - that is certain. The Government is looking to the National Infrastructure Commission to look at the country’s need for the next few decades and this is a serious issue as parts of the country may suffer if they cannot get the right infrastructure, in the right place at the right time.
Accepting that transport and servicing of the new garden settlements is a success, I am much more interested in seeking to ensure that the impact of any garden settlement is a positive and beneficial one for the new communities and for those that live nearby. After all, Ebenezer Howard - planning hero - put people at the centre of his 3 magnets diagram. We are hearing a lot about Hygge at the moment, and the Danish happiness factor and their way of living. I do not think there are any secrets out there on this front and I have read the books. I am sure that with the right professionals in the project team implementing their visions through the masterplans that Hygge and the resulting happiness can be fostered here too!