Today’s news of the government’s plans for 3 new garden towns and 14 garden villages are an interesting addition to thoughts for the New Year! It is beyond doubt that we need more houses in this country and that there is a current affordability crisis with many people priced out of any prospect of owning their own home. Equally certain is the controversy that individual sites will bring with concerns over the Green Belt – where it exists; green fields – much more abundant than Green Belt; the potential for coalescence of settlements into suburban sprawl and what it will all mean for affordability.
The three new garden towns are proposed near to Aylesbury in Bucks, Taunton in Somerset and Harlow & Gilston in Herts. They will comprise 10,000 homes each. I think the first garden city was Letchworth, followed by Welwyn after which the idea foundered. I also seem to remember that Letchworth was teetotal for many years, without a single pub to its name! Garden cities were the brainchild of a social reformer named Ebenezer Howard. He sought to combine the advantages of cities and the countryside and wanted to offer working people a better standard of living with low rents. However public houses were banned when Letchworth was built, with building work starting in 1903. It was not until a referendum of local people was held in 1958 that they voted for a lifting of the ban and now the town sports as many pubs and restaurants as any other urban area.
The 14 garden villages sound likely to be equally controversial. They are to comprise between 1,500 and 10,000 houses. I don’t think a settlement with 10,000 houses and, one would imagine, over 30,000 people could possibly be regarded as a village. It is a medium-sized town. There is one garden village proposed for Oxfordshire and it is in the triangle between Witney, Woodstock and Eynsham in West Oxfordshire – what was David Cameron’s old patch! It is the result of a bid by the district council for a garden village of up to 2,200 houses and its attraction is its proximity to Oxford which has one of the most acute housing crises in the country both in terms of price and availability.
This reminds me of the real problem for housing in Oxfordshire. It is the Green Belt that surrounds Oxford City. While that Green Belt continues to exist and to prevent the City from growing, there will be huge pressure on surrounding settlements outside the Green Belt to accommodate Oxford City’s housing needs. Cherwell has suffered from this for some time now and villages like Bloxham and Bodicote have been blighted with urban extensions to help to meet Oxford City’s housing needs. It is ironic that many villagers in North Oxfordshire believe they enjoy the benefit of Green Belt round their villages but they have increasingly discovered that the nearest Green Belt is miles away, girdling Oxford City and creating the housing boom on the green fields around North Oxfordshire villages that do not enjoy the protection the Green Belt brings.