Hot on the heels of the announcement that Ebbsfleet in Kent will become the first modern garden city in Britain, Bicester in Oxfordshire has now been revealed as its successor. Intended by the coalition government to alleviate problems caused by the housing shortage, this initiative proposes a new development of up to 13,000 homes in the garden city. A new railway station will be one of the improvements in infrastructure promised as part of the package.
History of the Garden City
According to Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats have long championed the garden city as an idea whose time has come again. Ironically, the coalition is taking inspiration from what was originally a socialist movement. Conceived to improve the lot of workers suffering the hellish condition of polluted Victorian cities, the garden city movement aimed to create a new civilisation based on the marriage of town and country.
Envisaged as series of concentric rings, these ‘slumless, smokeless cities’ were intended as mixed developments uniting social classes. An outer circle of factories and services would surround a belt of housing, with shopping and civic facilities in parkland at the centre. But most importantly, garden cities were planned as stakeholder developments: landlords and business owners would also live in the city, and speculative development would be prohibited.
The Need for Modern Garden Cities
Although the garden city planned for Bicester may not be rooted in utopian socialism, it does address a series of pressing needs. Britain is currently suffering a housing crisis characterised by a shortage of affordable homes. Prospective buyers are excluded from the property market by rising prices, and must compete for ever more expensive rented accommodation.
As in the Victorian era, landlords are able to charge high rents for poky and poorly maintained properties. Those priced out of the rental market have little choice but to join the ever more numerous ranks of the homeless. There is a clear need in Britain for more high quality, sensibly priced housing: this shortfall is estimated at around 250,000 homes per year until 2020.
Visions for the Modern Garden City
Unlike the creators of the original garden cities, the government hasn’t yet unveiled a grand plan for the present day equivalents. In fact there isn’t even a coherent definition of a modern garden city. The only stipulation appears to be the sale of land to developers who will create housing now, rather than buying it up to control the property market.
Politicians speculate that a government agency could be responsible for acquiring the land and taking on the design and construction of modern garden cities. This body could operate as a rival to private developers and further stimulate the completion of similar, privately funded, projects. Initial plans suggest that the government will build three modern garden cities, with the third yet to be announced.
Affordable Housing, Green Spaces and Sustainable Transport
So far, the specification for Bicester garden city stipulates the provision of affordable homes, jobs and schools whilst conserving the surrounding countryside. Initially, 10,000 homes will be built as part of the northwest Bicester eco town between 2014 and 2031. After 2031, the remaining 3,000 homes will be added and, if new development sites are identified, further development is on the cards.
Despite worries by local residents that Bicester’s infrastructure will be unable to cope with expansion on this scale, the proposal promises a level of service well beyond the current provision. The East-West Rail Project is expected to speed up train travel to Oxford and Milton Keynes, and a new motorway junction is being planned to ease traffic congestion. With this and the creation of 21,500 jobs, Cherwell District Council is confident that the new Bicester development will live up to the ideals of the original garden city movement.
The coalition government’s announcement that a new garden city is to be built in Bicester follows in the footsteps of the utopian town planners and architects who conceived the garden city movement in the late 19th century. The creation of 13,000 new homes in the area between 2014 and 2031, together with jobs, transport links and services, is seen as the key to relieving the housing crisis. Critics of these proposals state that the planned garden cities won’t create enough housing; however, these measures may just stimulate property development, revitalising the market and offering a real way out of this distressing situation.
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