Government should set up a task force or even a Royal Commission to push through the first of a series of Garden Cities to respond to the UK’s growing housing crisis.
So said Trevor Osborne, the chair of the Wolfson Economic Prize judging panel at a packed breakfast talk on some of the principles behind the winning schemes at NLA.
Osborne said that the only motive of Simon Wolfson in launching the prize had been his concern that there was a housing problem and that, as a political football it was just being kicked around with no solution for a growing population. ‘He wanted to bring on the debate’, said Osborne, ‘and a sensible debate at that.’ So, the competition offered £250,000 for the best idea, drawing 274 entrants which were whittled down to a shortlist of just five, all of which showed ‘an abundance of ideas’, ‘tremendous intellectual value’ and which were worth further study. If you want to plan for the future, said Osborne, it was not a bad thing to look to the past. But the main outcome was a ‘full room’ at NLA, and that ‘politicians from all parties are saying ‘hey, there could be mileage here.’
Andy von Bradsky, chairman, PRP and Toby Lloyd, head of policy, Shelter presented their ideas for around 55,000 new homes, predicated on an area of low value, underutilized land at Stoke Harbour on the Hoo Peninsular – a necklace of settlements connected to a main transport network. The vision was supported by KPMG, Laing O’Rourke and Legal and General. Von Bradsky added that the proposals were built around a green strategy, with a density of around 60 dwellings per hectare, 40% open space, a high proportion – 37.5% - of open space, and a similarly high ratio of self build. ‘We call it the town that built itself’, he said. Lloyd said it was important to break the traditional housebuilder business model, create as wide a range of tenures as possible to as many different markets as possible and as cheaply as possible, but that the normal levels of NIMBYism did not seem to apply, with the people of Medway being ‘quite warm’ to the ideas. There were also only 35 buildings in the red line of the site boundary, so the trick would be simply to compensate those people ‘extremely generously.’
Dr Nicholas Falk, director - London Office, URBED, showed the winning proposals he and David Rudlin drew up for the fictional settlement of ‘Uxcester’ – branded ‘bold’, and ‘daring’ by Osborne, which took on board some of the principles in successful settlements in Holland and Germany. Also borrowing from the main idea from Ebenezer Howard, the scheme proposes the near-doubling of existing large towns to provide 86,000 new homes for 150,000 people built over 30-35 years. It links places together using a ‘snowflake approach’ to the main diagram with ‘crystals’ growing gradually and allowing a doubling of population ‘without too much difficulty of intruding on people’s back yards’. The ideas also build on the Dutch approach to extending cities whilst taking inspiration from German cities such as Freiburg, which have controlled car use to encourage a switch to more cycling. Falk said Oxford, too, could accommodate the sort of scale of housing proposed through creating new neighbourhoods in surrounding towns, and needs to do that in order to help the University preserve its position as a world-leading institution as its researchers are finding housing increasingly difficult to come by. ‘The city is absolutely polarized, has had riots, and will have riots again’, said Falk.
London’s cause, moreover, could be helped through identifying the best sites for development, building on work done by Savills, and should, said Falk include extending New Towns such as Crawley and Harlow.
Discussion of the issues arising from the presentations ranged from an appreciation that compulsory purchase laws need to change; the need for politicians to grasp the issues in the run-up to the elections (it is rumoured the main parties will each use housing as a central theme); PRS; the possibility of re-establishing a Secretary of State for housing; and the need to see the issue as wider than simply housing alone, needing investment in infrastructure and the environment.
David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly