Letchworth Garden CityThe UK government has announced that it wishes to see three new garden cities built in the south of England. It has pledged £1 billion of funding and created a new body, the Urban Development Corporation to drive forward their development, along with another garden city announced last month at Ebbsfleet, east of London. But will these cities turn out to be properly sustainable, or will they have their visionary principles watered down on the way to construction?

A prospectusWelwyn  garden city has been published to help communities work up proposals for the garden cities. Criteria include that they must be locally-led, include at least 15,000 homes and have the backing of existing residents.

The original garden cities

Garden cities were originally developed towards the end of the 19th century as an answer to the pollution and overcrowded nature of industrial cities at the time. The first to be built was Letchworth (right), with others such as Bournville and Welwyn (below right) following.

Welwyn  garden city mapThe defining characteristics were that they were well-planned (as can be seen from the map below), included garden space for all residents to grow their own vegetables, had wide avenues, good transport links and decent standards of housing.

Their revival has been championed by the Town and Country Planning Association, a professional body that campaigns for the reform of the UK’s planning system to make it more responsive to people’s needs and aspirations and to promote sustainable development.

Modern garden cities

The UK's Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, making the announcement of the new garden cities, found their own reasons to support a new generation of garden cities: that they can be sustainable, provide affordable housing, and an opportunity to plan infrastructure around development instead of letting it occur piecemeal on the edges of existing towns and cities, where facilities such as schools, hospitals, shops and employment are frequently not provided by developers.

The prospectus also talks of providing: allotments, a generous amount of green space - which has proven health benefits, community ownership of land, mixed-tenure homes and housing types, local jobs, and "capturing value for the benefit of the community". This is a reference to the disparity in land value for agricultural land and land earmarked for housing that is designed to prevent speculation (although it frequently does not) and to prevent what is often referred to as "unfettered development" on agricultural land.

Clegg and Pickles have invited bids for £1 billion investment. Proposed developments must promise to build at least 1500 homes and it is anticipated that up to 250,000 new homes could be developed up to 2020. The UK has seen a chronic undersupply of housing in the last two decades, making it very hard for anyone under 30 to afford their own home.

Clegg said: "This is a call to arms for visionaries in local areas in need of housing to put forward radical and ambitious proposals to develop their own garden cities."

He said he wanted to see previously developed brownfield land used where possible for the new garden cities. "Planning such a complex project will be a challenge for any community, so local areas will be offered support to help deliver their ambitions."

Successful expressions of interest will receive support from a special section in the Homes and Communities Agency called the ATLAS (Advisory Team for Large Applications) team.

By the end of August the Government will begin working on three proposals for garden cities to help remove planning red tape and secure private funding.

 Ebbsfleet International rail stationEbbsfleet - will it really be a garden city?

Last month, the UK Chancellor, George Osborne, announced plans to create Ebbsfleet Garden City with up to £200 million of infrastructure funding made available to kick-start development.

Ebbsfleet, which contains an international transport hub (pictured right, Creative Commons Licence © Copyright Stephen Craven) linking London through the Channel Tunnel to the continent, and which is on the southern side of the River Thames estuary, Ebbsfleet Valley is just 19 minutes from central London, and has long been identified as having great development potential. It also contains farmland, marshland, and is low-lying therefore potentially vulnerable to sealevel rise, as the Environment Agency has pointed out.

 Land Securities idea of Ebbsfleet garden cityEbbsfleet (below right) looks likely to be developed in a very different way from those garden cities announced by Clegg and Pickles.

The Urban Development Corporation created to manage it is an unelected government body which, although tasked with potentially working with local authorities, is seen as likely to go over their heads and appoint developers rather than local organisations to do the planning and building.

One such large developer, Land Securities, has already published their vision of what they think the garden city will look like (below, right), which is nothing like that painted by Clegg and Pickles.