A plan to give "garden city" status to up to 40 English towns has won the £250,000 Wolfson Economics Prize. David Rudlin was announced as the winner of the 2014 Prize at a special gala dinner in London on Wednesday 3 September 2014.

The winner was chosen from among five finalists announced at the beginning of June.They had to answer the question: "How would you deliver a new garden city which is visionary, economically viable and popular?"

The fictional garden city of Uxcester, winner of the £250,000 Wolfson Economics Prize
The fictional garden city of Uxcester, winner of the £250,000 Wolfson Economics Prize.

David Rudlin's plan argues for the near-doubling of existing large towns in line with garden city principles, to provide 86,000 new homes for 150,000 people built over 30-35 years.

His entry imagines a fictional town called Uxcester to develop the concept, and applies that concept to Oxford (2011 population: 150,000) as a case study, showing how Oxford could rival the strategy adopted by Cambridge for growth and expansion.

Oxfordshire County Council leader Ian Hudspeth said he welcomed the "stimulus" that the Wolfson Prize had given to the debate.

Sites of possible future garden cities

Sites of possible future garden cities

Rudlin argues that there may be as many as 40 cities in England that could be doubled in size in this way, such as York, Norwich, Stafford and Cheltenham. 20% of new homes would be affordable housing.

The judges' citation for the winner said: "David Rudlin’s essay sets out an extremely strong vision which builds on a successful and much-loved heritage of existing mid-sized cities with a strong cultural and educational offer, imagined as Uxcester in the entrant’s submission. It is, as he puts it, more in the mould of Edinburgh than of Cumbernauld."

Cumbernauld is a new town built in the '60s outside of Glasgow that won awards when it was constructed, but later was acknowledged to have failed.

Rudlin suggested Norwich, Northampton, Reading, Stafford and Rugby as other towns which could be expanded as part of the scheme. Many could be doubled in size, providing hundreds of thousands of new homes.

Housing crisis

Britain has a chronic housing crisis. Last year just 109,370 new homes were constructed in England, the lowest figure for four years, but government figures suggest 221,000 new homes are needed every year in England and Wales.

The Wolfson Economics Prize conducted a poll of 6,166 people on attitudes to garden cities with Populus in May 2014. It found that there was widespread support for garden cities amongst the public as a way of solving the housing crisis.

74% of those asked agreed that it is a good idea to build new garden cities to help meet Britain’s need for more housing – only 13% disagreed.

Going back to Rudlin's proposal, the judges liked "the personal and human-scale nature of the vision". They recognised their decision might be controversial because "if applied to some of the towns identified, would double the size of a settlement but leave only 85% of the local Green Belt untouched. Clearly that needs to be the subject of debate, even if the Green Belt land lost were to be replaced with new Green Belt around nearby villages to protect them from undesired extension."

6-point ‘social contract’

David Rudlin’s entry proposes a 6-point ‘social contract’ to address objections, aimed at minimising environmental damage by:

  • avoiding flood plains;
  • concealing housing within the landscape;
  • opening up previously inaccessible green space;
  • directly compensating those whose property would need to be purchased;
  • providing new community facilities including energy schemes;
  • affordable housing and a totally new tram line;
  • regeneration of the host town’s existing high street through the increase in catchment;
  • a community-based management body.

He argues that towns should be permitted to bid for garden city status and should not have expansion imposed upon them.

Garden Cities Act

Rudlin has called on the next government to introduce a Garden Cities Act under which towns and cities could bid for garden city status.

The Act would allow the Government to confer new delivery tools upon successful bidders – including financial guarantees (but not subsidy) and modernised land acquisition powers; and the power to create local Garden City Foundations to promote each garden city.

The Act would also include a new statutory requirement to plan responsibly for housing development at the local authority level, with garden city status being one of the options that local authorities could draw upon to meet that need.

"Our economic plan proposes that 80,000 new jobs and 100,000 new homes need to be built by 2031 across the county," he said. "Therefore, we cannot rely on small, short-term fixes - we need to think of larger, bolder solutions."

Expansion would take the form of town extensions connected to the city centre by a tram or bus rapid transit (similar to that operating in Cambridge), with each extension consisting of green, walkable neighbourhoods with primary schools, business uses, and local shops, drawing on modern Scandinavian, Dutch and German models.

Development of flood plains would be entirely avoided in the design of the settlement and extensions would be surrounded by country parks, allotments, lakes and other low impact uses.

The financial model shows how a modern tram scheme could be delivered to serve the new garden city, of the sort that most other European cities of the size of Uxcester would feel entitled to.

Vathorst in Amersfoort

Vathorst in Amersfoort, one of the inspirations for the proposal.

The expanded garden city would provide a new population who would use the town centre, helping to regenerate its shopping facilities and protecting it against out-of-town retail.

The financial model shows that for every plot developed, the same area again could be allocated for parks and gardens which are publicly accessible to the whole community rather than kept in private hands. 20% of new homes would be affordable housing. The overwhelming majority of Green Belt land (if the town has a Green Belt) would be protected and enhanced.

Government plans for garden cities

A separate process being managed by the UK government is already under way on identifying options for new garden cities. The government has indicated that it does not want to "impose any definition of what garden cities are", but features can include "quality design, gardens, accessible green space near homes, access to employment, and local amenities".

The winning team

David Rudlin is a planner by training and has been responsible for a number of large masterplans across the UK as well as research reports for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Urban Task Force and the Government. He works for urban design consultancy URBED.

He developed the essay with Nicholas Falk (also URBED) who for many years has been exploring the application of continental models of housing development to the UK. Falk is an urban economist who has been one of the UK's leading urban thinkers for 40 years. Together they co-authored the book ‘Sustainable Urban Neighbourhoods’ published by Routledge in 2009.

There was also input from Jon Rowland (John Rowland Urban Design), Joe Ravetz (Manchester University) and Peter Redman (Managing Director, Policy and Research at TradeRisks Ltd).

The Wolfson Economics Prize will hold an exhibition about the Prize at The Building Centre, London, supported by The Building Centre Trust, the Royal Town Planning Institute and Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation. The exhibition will run from tomorrow (4 September) to 29 September 2014 and will then be available to other interested organisations in a touring format. See the Building Centre Trust website for more details.