Lord Rogers of Riverside has attacked proposals to build up to 40 new garden cities on the greenbelt as “a ridiculous concept” and has called instead for the developments to be stitched into existing cities using derelict sites.
He spoke out after the £250,000 Wolfson Economics Prize was last week awarded to a proposal to “take a confident bite out of the greenbelt” and build 150,000-resident urban extensions to towns and cities across the country.
It follows cross-party consensus that garden cities, first pioneered in 1898, could solve the deepening housing crisis.
But the leading architect and Labour peer said he was saddened by the re-emergence of ideas to build several million new homes on green field sites and proposed instead to build major new developments in the Croydon and northern cities such as Manchester and Hull. Government projections suggest the UK needs six million new homes in the next 30 years.
“You could put two new towns in the centre of Croydon without any problem because the centre of Croydon is practically empty if you look at a plan of the place,” Rogers said. “It already has wonderful transport: trains, trams and it could even have a new runway at Gatwick which is not far away. There is even more brownfield land in the centres of Manchester, Hull and Birmingham. We should build new towns in our cities before we build them in the green belt.”
He warned the Wolfson prize-winning proposal would result in a increase in car use and more roads and said the strategy was in effect “pandering” to the needs of house builders who find it easier and cheaper to build homes on open land. He also predicted the extensions were likely to become middle class only communities with the poor unable to access most of the new housing and the rich uninterested in moving out of prime city locations.
“There will be a point in time to come when we will need to use greenfield land, but we are not anywhere near it yet,” he said. “We have 61,000 hectares of brownfield land in England and the government has approved half of it as potentially suitable for development. That would allow 1.3m dwellings to be built even at a low density. That excludes the 400,000 dwellings with planning permission but not yet built and intensification of housing around round existing urban hubs. If we build new greenfield settlements we will be emptying out existing cities and that is a ridiculous idea.”
Rogers was an adviser on cities and regeneration to the last Labour government, the Labour mayor of London Ken Livingstone and his Conservative successor, Boris Johnson. But the winner of the Wolfson Prize, David Rudlin, defended his proposal saying that while cities such as Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham did have plenty of previously used land, places such as Oxford, York, Chester, Durham and Reading did not and could suffer without expansion onto greenbelt.
“Richard must realise that they come to a point where they need to expand,” he said. “I am proposing extending these towns and cities using a well-thought out plan rather than allowing them to sprawl in an uncoordinated way. Bloomsbury in London was built in this way. So was Edinburgh’s new town.”
Rogers’ attack came despite his party promising a new generation of garden cities and new towns to almost double housebuilding rates to 200,000 homes a year if it wins the 2015 general election.
His objection to the garden cities proposal also places him in an unlikely agreement with the Conservatives. Brandon Lewis, the Conservative housing minister, said Rudlin’s plan was “not government policy and will not be taken up”.
“We are committed to protecting the green belt from development as an important protection against urban sprawl,” he said. “We do not intend to follow the failed example of top-down ecotowns from the last administration. Picking housing numbers out of thin air and imposing them on local communities builds nothing but resentment. Already we’re working with local councils and residents to develop the first garden city at Ebbsfleet, which will deliver up to 15,000 new homes, and published a prospectus offering support to communities with locally-supported plans for a garden city in their area.”