What are garden communities? A definition and key principles

Garden communities include garden cities, garden towns and garden villages. These settlements can be defined as being “designed for industry and healthy living; of a size that makes possible a full measure of social life, but not larger; surrounded by a permanent belt of rural land; the whole of the land being in public ownership or on trust for the community".

Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City are examples of garden cities which were built in the UK in the early 20th Century.

The key principles of a garden cities are generally agreed to include the following:

  • strong vision, leadership and community engagement
  • land value capture for the benefit of the community
  • community ownership of land
  • mixed-tenure homes and housing types that are affordable, and
  • employment opportunities, green space, strong leisure and retail facilities and integrated and accessible transport system.

For an overview, see our guide to garden cities, towns and villages.

21st century revival

Garden community schemes have gained traction since the 2014 announcement that Ebbsfleet would become the first new garden city in over 100 years. Seen as an important tool in meeting housing demand, schemes have attracted substantial funding from the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government - for example, the North Essex Garden Communities scheme.

The concept of garden communities also has explicit policy support under paragraph 72 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and has the backing of independent planning bodies such as the Town and Country Planning Association. Garden communities can be popular with local authorities and are sometimes put forward in their draft development plans. The large number of homes delivered by such schemes goes a significant way to satisfying five year housing land supply requirements.

Advantages and challenges

Garden communities offer advantages over other approaches to increasing the number of homes. However, they also present a series of challenges.

Advantages

Garden communities are new, self-sufficient communities. They will generally be built on undeveloped land, agricultural land or brownfield land. They will be distinct from existing settlements, rather than adjoining ‘edge of town’ locations. Accordingly, a particularly important stage in the development of garden communities is the ‘place- making piece’ – namely, creating a quality place that people want to live, work, play, and learn in; one with an identity, which promotes wellbeing. The use of a ’blank canvas’ provides developers and planners with more scope and flexibility at design stage. The community has its own transport and public services infrastructure so, in contrast to residential additions to existing settlements, there is no burden on existing inner-settlement infrastructure. In contrast with piecemeal residential developments, which are often unpopular with local residents, the garden community approach is viewed much more favourably (three quarters of the British public expressed their support for the creation of more garden cities in a 2014 poll).

Challenges

Some of these advantages are also challenges. The investment needs to support a whole community's-worth of infrastructure, for example. Also, the potential need to use agricultural land and land which may be protected ‘green belt’ land. To alter the boundaries of the green belt a local authority will need to meet the ‘exceptional circumstances’ test in the NPPF, as recently clarified by the High Court in the Compton case.

From a consenting point of view, the larger scales and longer timeframes involved in these ambitious developments means higher stakes in a risk and reward matrix. The potentially greater reward of increased quantity and quality of housing and infrastructure comes with the greater risk of needing to navigate a large scheme through an unwieldy, plan-led planning system.

A recent example of a scheme struggling to pass through the planning system is the North Essex Garden City Scheme, which was deemed ‘unsound’ by the Planning Inspectorate in May this year. Commentators cite the Inspector’s decision as illustrative that the current examination system for local plans is unfit for such large-scale schemes. It brings into question whether local authorities and planners have the resources and skillsets needed to plan garden communities. The North Essex scheme also raises the question of whether this is the right way of testing these schemes, with the findings in North Essex largely revolving around the developments’ ‘viability’ at the early plan stage when the proposals’ actual viability is still contingent on future funding decisions[1].

A further challenge is the need to carefully balance the interests of the various parties involved in any one scheme. The local authority (or several local authorities) may need to work in close partnership with a number of different private interests (such as landowners, promoters and investors). Unless the common goals are clear to all parties from the outset, it can be challenging to satisfy the interests of all the parties as the scheme moves through the planning system.

Possible solutions

There are tools which may assist those seeking to develop garden communities.

In situations where a promoter of a garden community (be it a local authority, group of organisations or development corporation (see below)) has been unable to secure partnership of a landowner, or perhaps where landowners are unwilling to sell their land, it may be possible to use a compulsory purchase order. Please see our webinar on the topic of Garden Cities, Regeneration and Compulsory Purchase Orders for more information on this topic.

A theoretical alternative to promoting a garden community through the Town and Country Planning Act regime is to promote it under the Planning Act 2008, as a nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP), consented by way of a development consent order (DCO). However, this requires the secretary of state to be persuaded that the scheme should be designated as an NSIP and takes the decision making out of local government’s hands and placed in central government’s hands. This option therefore risks losing the notable political advantage of a scheme being ‘locally- led’.

Another tool is the development corporation. Traditionally development corporations have been set up and overseen by central government to deliver new towns. But, since 2018, the regime has had a local ‘flavour’ as local authorities, rather than the secretary of state, now acting as the ‘oversight authorities’ for the corporation. (For further information, please see our previous article). Government has also announced more funding to a tranche of newly- formed development corporations and its intention to ensure development corporations have the powers they need in order to take forward long– term housing growth .

Recent news has suggested that the government is set to back a transition to a ‘zonal’ planning system in order to reduce perceived excessive ‘red - tape’. The concept of zonal planning takes inspiration from the planning systems currently in place in countries such as the USA and Australia. It involves an area for development being broken down into zones, with development in that zone being ‘as of right’ if the pre- determined criteria for that zone are shown to be met.

These proposed changes derive from the government’s wider ‘Planning for the Future’ strategy. They also form part of a wider economic strategy to use reform of the planning system as a tool to kick-start the economy and to stimulate spending on infrastructure in the face of the economic downturn resulting from COVID- 19 lockdown measures.

Conclusion

There is a lot of work involved in delivering garden communities; however, hopefully the various mechanisms outlined above will ease the path for the creation of new garden communities. It certainly looks like prospective government reforms are likely to keep garden communities firmly on the development agenda.