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Garden Towns and Villages: sustainable green communities or cynical rebranding?

Whilst the rest of us were still recovering from the excesses of New Year’s Eve there was big news coming from the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) with the announcement of 14 new garden villages and 3 new garden towns.

But what is a garden village or town? Well that is where things become a little uncertain. What is certain however is that there will be ring fenced funding over the next two years to help bring these projects forward. There is a £6 million fund for the villages and a further £1.4 million of funding available for the towns.

The term ‘garden’ implies that these settlements will be leafy, green and lovely, such as the first garden city, Letchworth Garden City created by Sir Ebenezer Howard (a bit of a planning pin-up) in the late 1800’s.

There is currently no guidance on what these new settlements should look like or how they should function, with the Garden Town Prospectus simply saying:

10. We do not consider that there is a single template for a garden village, town or city. It will be important for the new community to establish a clear and distinct sense of identity. We want to see local areas adopt innovative approaches and solutions to creating great places, rather than following a set of rules.

This is of huge concern to us here at the Woodland Trust. We recognise that everyone in this country deserves to have a home of their own but housing development that damages or destroys irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland or ancient and veteran trees can never truly be called 'sustainable'. With over 300 ancient woodlands currently under threat from development in England, proper protections must be put in place as the current planning protections are failing ancient woodland. As such, we will be carefully monitoring all the proposed sites and will campaign vigorously against any which do deleteriously affect ancient woodland.

Eco towns & garden cities

Lots of the sites announced this week have been in the planning system for years with several being mooted as Eco Towns under the last Labour Government.

The Woodland Trust hopes that this rebranding will help build high quality sustainable communities, rather than just act as a greenwashing exercise to get schemes through the system. This is echoed by the prospectus:

11. Equally, we are clear that this prospectus is not looking to support places which merely use ‘garden’ as a convenient label. Rather, we will support local areas that embed key garden city principles to develop communities that stand out from the ordinary.

The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), also founded by Howard to promote the Garden City movement has long campaigned for the creation of high quality garden cities that meet a number of principles. These are a great starting point but the Woodland Trust would like to see them being taken even further. We need to be building communities that are rich in woods and trees; these are key to building places that are resilient to climate change and allow everyone to live healthy and stimulating lives. There must be great public access to woods and green places and to be considered as a garden settlement these new developments must at least meet the Open Space Access Standard and the Woodland Access Standard (PDF, 1.16MB).

So is this a glorious opportunity or an exercise in rebranding? As optimists we can only hope it is the former but we shall be working hard to hold the government to account to deliver its promise of truly sustainable communities.