"We are for the first time in 100 years going to build a garden city in Ebbsfleet in the Thames Estuary,” Osborne said. “This means more homes, this means more aspiration for families. Britain has got to get building."
With all the UK’s political parties looking for solutions to the housing crisis ahead of the 2015 election, leading housing association Moat is holding a one-day conference, or ‘Think Piece’, on the subject of garden cities.
“We think garden cities are part of a bigger solution to our housing needs,” explains Moat CEO Elizabeth Austerberry.
Moat provides affordable homes and services for people in housing need across the South East. It is one of around 1,400 housing associations providing 1.8 million homes across England.
“In Kent, we are well placed in terms of infrastructure, but in planning garden cities we need more of a thoughtful approach,” says Austerberry.
“We need to think about how people live today rather than recreate the garden cities of the past. We need to think about how to make it a community.
“There are issues with garden cities too. They take a very long time and we are worried that affordable housing might get squeezed out if housing associations don’t engage in the debate.”
The new garden city at Ebbsfleet is a case in point - the first planning application was made in 2003 but so far just 150 homes have been built.
Austerberry says it has been a similar story at Northstowe, a proposed new town of 9,500 houses in Cambridgeshire.
“It has been worked on as the next garden city for at least ten years and they are hoping to start the initial phase next year. These days we are probably better at understanding infrastructure for new towns, but it also needs communities to be happy with what is being proposed.”
Moat’s Think Piece on garden cities will consider the practicalities involved in delivery, the political and economic implications and the theoretical basis for them.
“We have to accept people do live differently – more people work from home, for example,” says Austerberry.
“More people won’t be able to afford their own home outright so we will need a different mix of tenures. Then there is community engagement – my vision for a new town would be lots of people working there, not just a dormitory. Bear in mind the increase in the elderly population - can we make the housing more flexible for the needs of older people?
“We know with an older population people will want to be near their relatives. The state isn’t going to be able to pick up the bill for caring for a substantially older population, so maybe living nearer family, or having homes which allow an older family member to move in with them – these are some of the things we need to think about.”
In the 1800s, garden cities were for people “trying to escape from London because it wasn’t seen as such an attractive place to live,” Austerberry explains.
“Cities in general have had a renaissance and it is far more about affordability and lifestyle rather than people fleeing for negative reasons.”
Much of today’s debate revolves around increasing housing supply. Moat will ask in its Think Piece: “If that’s our aim, are there not quicker and more efficient ways of achieving this?”
With political parties engaged in manifesto planning for 2015, Austerberry says garden cities “can’t just be seen as the only solution”.
“The idea that we can build 15 of them and that will solve our housing crisis – that’s just not going to happen.”
She adds: “There are lots of other easy wins in the short term that come from having more grant-friendly, affordable housing programmes, and from having a quicker start on a multitude of smaller sites, which are a lot less complex to deliver.
“Last year Moat managed to have nearly 1,000 starts on site, and we are not a large housing association. There is quite a lot of ability to get things done, but we concentrate quite a lot on smaller ones as they are the easiest to get going, and people quite like those because they bolt on to existing communities.”
Austerberry says there must be more thought given to different ownership models.
“Moat has been offering shared ownership for 30 years - we are responsible for something like 5% of all the shared ownership transactions that have been done.
“Shared ownership has a number of advantages – it gives people stability and a stake in their property. As house prices outstrip wages it is harder for people to own outright. For every shared ownership unit we build we could sell it ten times over to people who are able to get a mortgage and want to buy the property outright. There is real demand in London and the South East.”
Austerberry says that political support for large-scale projects like garden cities has not resulted in significant additional funding to overcome barriers, such as infrastructure gaps.
There is also an inherent assumption that a substantial portion of the land value will be surrendered by developers in order to fund infrastructure works.
“We do worry that the contributions developers would have to make to community requirements in new cities, such as hospitals, would mean the amount of genuinely affordable housing might be squeezed, because developers would need the maximum amount of profit from the open market sales.
“That is one of the reasons we want to be part of the debate – we don’t want that to happen. We passionately believe that mixed communities are the future. “
Moat will be live tweeting from the launch of their Think Piece, join the conversation here.