‘We are building the homes families want,’ declared Rishi Sunak last week (24 July) as his levelling-up, housing and communities secretary painted a picture of a gleaming new housing development in Britain’s ‘Silicon Fen’ capital of Cambridge.
But before a shovel had been raised, his own backbenchers had demolished the plan as a non-starter, pointing, particularly, to the lack of water in the area.
South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne angrily tweeted: “I will do everything I can to stop the government’s nonsense plans to impose mass housebuilding on Cambridge, where all major developments are now blocked by the Environment Agency because we have quite literally run out of water. Our streams, rivers and ponds already run dry.”
The Prime Minister’s announcement heralded the launch of Housing Secretary Michael Gove’s long-awaited solution to Britain’s chronic homes shortage. But it crashed through the rafters in much the same way.
Critics seized on his plan to tear up red tape and convert empty inner-city department stores and offices into homes. Few shops, especially on ground floors, made suitable homes, they argued. The plan would fail to regenerate inner cities and only push conversions to out-of-town.
In their haste to avoid accusations of ‘concreting over the countryside’, the Tories have not only returned to the timeworn housing axis of inner city versus the suburbs – but also failed to recognise most homebuyers’ priorities today: green, walkable space, and areas with a diverse, community feel and a sense of ‘us-ness’.
My new book – Edge City UK: Abomination or New Urban Form? written with former Town
& Country Planning magazine editor David Boyle – points to a new urban future outside the clichés of this axis: self-contained, self-build communities on the edge – but not in the suburbs – of cities.
Covid and the cost-of-living crisis have fuelled a rethink and a need for vibrant, liveable communities with close and neighbourly contact, the book argues. Inner cities will always remain ‘hollowed out’ as long as land on the outskirts is cheaper. People no long want to live in anonymous rows of houses in dreary, time-forgotten suburbia.
Its publication follows on from the 30th anniversary of the coining of the phrase ‘Edge City’ by US author Joel Garreau to describe the self-contained everything-on-the-doorstep communities he saw springing up ‘like dandelions’ on plains around American cities in the early 90s.
Sick of the daily commute, a breed of new, young settlers flocked to places where they could live, work and socialise in what became fashionably known as ‘retroburbs’. The concept failed to find roots in the UK where suburbia – mocked by John Betjeman as “the home of the gnome and the ordinary man” – carried a lingering stigma.
But three decades later, Edge City UK finds evidence on these shores of Garreau’s utopian ideal of all ages coming together to live and work in crime-free light and space-filled communities with their own cinemas, gyms, restaurants and ‘meeting spaces’.
“Events have changed our thinking,” said David. “Covid challenged the notion that cities are ideal for the young as working from home took off. The decline of UK planning controls had led to ugly, unaffordable developments prompting more people to dare to ‘self-build’.
“Suburbs are no longer sneered at as drive-through wastelands for the penny-pinching and easily pleased. Isolation during the pandemic has encouraged us to seek the shared sense of ‘us-ness’ and a home around a ‘village square’ that Garreau described.”
The book evaluates experiments such as Oxfordshire’s Graven Hill, where the council bought hundreds of acres of former Ministry of Defence land but – instead of selling it off wholesale to developers – it loosened mainstream planning regulations and parcelled off some to those willing to build a home from scratch.
Such experiments could help break the stranglehold of the handful of UK construction giants, who are reported to be brazenly defying the Climate Change Committee by still selling homes with such poor environmental specifications that they will need to be retrofitted to meet 2025 standards.
The book, launched at last month’s Radix/Big Tent Ideas Festival, highlights signs of a possible power-shift. Graven Hill minister, Rev Helen Baker, tells the authors: “Residents want to have some ownership of their community. Yet they (developers) are used to having full control… used to building 500 homes, moving 500 families in and then saying: ‘This is what you’ve got.”
A stronger prophecy emerges in the book’s foreword by Food, Farming and Countryside Commission chief executive Sue Pritchard. She says that citizens are ‘very willing’ to take on an “under-regulated, heavily subsidised ‘free market’ housing sector, trousering eye-watering profits whilst offering ugly, unaffordable, unimaginative, unsafe and insufficient’ homes,” she notes.
“Given the right structures and good information, they are able to bring about their own ‘creative , pragmatic and ambitious solutions’ and make their homes and places work, for now and for future generations.”