Rogers, Don’t Build On Greenfield, Don’t Build Garden Cities

Guardian  Whilst sympathetic to much of what he says here his own figures undermine his arguments – there are examples like Sweden that are really good at brownfield first and urban renaissance  but with really low completion rates.  He seems to suggest the same – London for example only builds around 60% of its need – yet has a high brownfield rate.  Ony a success if seen on a narrow metric.  1.5 million brownfield homes, even if they were all viable and in the right place, which they are not, and even if replenished at the same rate they have been, will only meet half of the necessary ‘flow rate’ of new housing needed to meet need and clear the backlog within 15 years.  The numbers dont stack up.  Yes lets have brownfield first but we need Garden Cities too.  No country in the world has been able to meet housing need without building new settlements, and there are plenty of examples, like Germany, that build close to housing need AND have urban renaissance and a proper plan led system.  Its a false choice not supported by the evidence.

Cities are the engines of innovation and the heart of our culture. We will destroy their vitality if we build new towns while there is still space in urban areas.

In the 15 years since the Urban Task Force, which I chaired, published its report, our cities have bounced back remarkably. It was called Towards an Urban Renaissance, and it argued for well-designed, compact urban development, on previously developed (“brownfield”) sites and around public transport hubs, alongside excellent public spaces and social amenities. It marked a move from suburban sprawl to urban regeneration, and the centres of cities like Manchester and Birmingham have been transformed.

But we are still failing to provide enough well-designed homes for our fast-growing population, together with the public spaces and mix of uses that create decent places to live. The latest government forecasts suggest we need about 250,000 new homes every year in England. We haven’t built anywhere near that many since 1975, and over the past 20 years, as construction of council housing has ground to a halt, it has been about 150,000 a year. The recession caused a further slowdown: last year we built fewer than 110,000 houses, the second lowest annual total since 1923.

We can’t go on like this. The housing shortage threatens both the economy and our quality of life. The government has called for a new generation of “garden cities“, and recent reports from Sir Michael Lyons’ housing review suggest that the Labour party is considering “urban extensions” modelled on the postwar new towns. These policy responses ignore the fragility of the urban renaissance, and overlook the damage that careless relaxation of planning controls could do to our cities and our countryside. And they underestimate how much our cities can still offer. A panicked retreat to the 20th-century solutions of suburban sprawl and new towns is not the answer.

The original garden cities turned their back on the grim industrial centres of their day, seeking healthier, happier lives for their residents in a green setting. This was understandable given the appalling conditions most city dwellers endured 100 years ago. But it set in train a process of urban depopulation from which our cities are only just recovering. Middle-class people moved out by choice, and working-class communities were disruptively transplanted to the new towns that emerged after the second world war.

Opening up greenfield sites for new towns (even rebranded as “garden cities”) will create commuter dormitories, without the critical mass to sustain local shops or services. What is more, we will divert investment away from complex urban brownfield sites, and will deprive existing urban and suburban centres of the vitality they need. Why develop Ebbsfleet as a new town, when east London still needs investment and offers brownfield land to accommodate tens of thousands of new homes?

We do not need to repeat the mistakes of the past. Our cities industrialised earlier and more extensively than many others in Europe; and as heavy industry continues to decline, our stock of brownfield sites is replenished. These derelict sites tear apart the urban tapestry of our cities, creating threatening voids, and making local services and infrastructure, from schools to shops, unviable. Building on greenfield sites does not just waste land, but also undermines urban amenities and the communities that depend on them.

The government’s last estimates, published in 2009, identified 30,000 hectares of brownfield land in England suitable for housing, which could provide nearly 1.5 million new homes. You can debate the suitability of particular sites, but there is clearly no urgent need to abandon the principle of “brownfield first”. For example, London, which needs 42,000 homes a year, already accommodates 98% of new development on brownfield land (reflecting the policies set out in the London Plan).

But the biggest opportunity may not be in large sites, but in intelligent retrofitting and redevelopment, adapting existing buildings and working outward from high streets and neighbourhood centres – the places with best access to public transport, shops and other amenities. Using London as an illustration, if 600 high streets and town centres took 500 extra homes apiece, this could provide 300,000 new homes, as well as shoring up and protecting the prosperity of existing places. King’s Cross and Stratford are examples of how new towns can be built in urban centres.

So, we have the space. The question is, why we are not able to build faster, in the face of such overwhelming demand? Briefly put, our housing market is dysfunctional. Landowners – from housebuilders to supermarket chains – have huge land banks, but rising land values give them no incentive to release these for development. Councils should be in control of planning their cities, not the Treasury or housebuilders.

We need new ways of planning and building more homes. We must put elected councils back in the driving seat, with the tools and financial resources to plan for their towns and cities, and to make development happen (through, for example, enhanced compulsory purchase powers or new property tax arrangements). We should also be seeking a richer mix of developers and builders, including housing associations, small builders, long-term developers and community groups, as well as the big housebuilders. Off-site manufacture, with British and foreign firms developing standardised components, can dramatically quicken construction, with houses being built on site in hours or days rather than weeks.

With intelligent design and planning, we don’t need to overflow into new towns on greenfield sites; doing so would damage the countryside and – more importantly – wreck our cities. We do need to make more of what we have, unlocking a million development opportunities, and building new places that mix uses, tenures and people, rather than slowly churning out identikit housing estates. Our urban renaissance does need new towns, but they must be new towns in our existing cities.