It looks green, but is it a garden city?
To describe the transformation of a former quarry into commuter housing as Britain’s first garden city for 100 years was a stroke of marketing genius by George Osborne.
 
In all the excitement, commentators barely questioned the government’s decision to plough £200m into the Ebbsfleet scheme in north Kent and place one of the old-style development corporations so loved by Michael Heseltine in charge of it. Yet the announcement in this week’s budget, trailed last weekend on the Andrew Marr show, is not so much a bold vision as a bailout of the first order.
 
Consider this. Ebbsfleet has been regarded as a cornerstone of new housing development in the southeast for a decade. The previous government kindly provided it with an international railway station which opened in 2007. This was going to be a 21st century Metro-land, whose residents could be whisked to London or Paris in the twinkling of a high-speed rail system (that’s right, new transport links reinforce the capital’s dominance).
 
Consider this, too. The land in Ebbsfleet is owned by Britain’s biggest commercial property company, Land Securities. For those who believe the dead hands of central and local government bureaucrats are to blame for Britain’s appallingly inadequate housing supply, here was an opportunity for the private sector to show how things should be done.
 
In 2005 Land Securities hailed the granting of planning permission for the first 6,250 homes, community facilities, workspaces and parks in Eastern Quarry. In 2006 it chose Countryside Properties as its joint venture partner for the first 600 homes, which were expected to be ready for occupation at the end of 2007. Much was made of the fact that the development would be a mere 15-minute commute from central London.
 
One credit crunch later, and we fast forward to August 2012, when the then housing minister, Grant Shapps, announced a ‘historic deal’ between ministers, councillors and Land Securities to ‘unlock’ 22,600 homes in and around Ebbsfleet over the next 20 years. The ‘homes and roads programme’ would deliver much-needed transport infrastructure to allow development to go ahead.
 
In March 2013 Land Securities exchanged contracts with Ward Homes for the sale of 150 residential plots, the first deal since the one with Countryside properties seven years earlier.
 
Another year on, and apart from the ‘garden city’ branding, the only really significant movement is the announcement of an urban development corporation – a quango to replace the partnership previously in charge of the plans, the Kent Thameside Delivery Board – and a promise of £200m of public investment, which may or may not include money already spent or committed. The amount of new housing has fallen from the 22,600 homes mentioned in 2012 to 15,000.
 
In other words, the government is stepping in to try to do what private landowners and housebuilders, with all the entrepreneurial dynamism they can muster, have been unable to achieve. The press statementby Land Securities is revealing:
 
‘The new arrangements should make it easier, quicker and cheaper to deliver a new garden city at Ebbsfleet and provide thousands of much needed new homes in the south-east. Parts of Ebbsfleet Valley today still resemble a quarry (its former use) and significant further investment is needed before homes can be built at scale – Government support, through a new UDC, will therefore be vital in delivering a garden city quickly.’

What we end up with may or may not be a garden city. There’s no indication that George Osborne has a clue what one should involve, though it would be worth his while having a word with the Town and Country Planning Association, among others. But at a time when the property market in London and the southeast is booming like there’s no tomorrow, this looks suspiciously like a bailout.