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"Trying to make housing sound popular"

Reading University’s ‘Garden Village’

Pat Phillipps

The University of Reading wants to sell off the fields between Shinfield, Arborfield, and Sindlesham so developers can build 4,500 houses there. It expects to get about £460,000,000 on the sale of the land, known as the Hall Farm estate.

The University doesn’t just want to hand over the deeds to the land and collect the money. It also wants to get involved in the character of the housing construction project, which it calls a ‘garden village’. Its Facebook page (November 2021) explained the university’s vision for this project: ‘As a world leader in environment and climate research, we are keen that any proposals that come forward for the garden village reflect the aspirations for a low carbon society that respects nature. We want sustainability to be at the core of the development.’

Where did the idyllic-sounding ‘garden village’ plan come from? The first batch of garden villages was proposed by Teresa May’s government in January 2017. The idea behind garden towns/villages was explained by her housing minister (and haven't we had a few since then!) Gavin Barwell as follows:

"The whole [garden community] programme is about trying to make sure that at the outset we design in the sort of crucial community infrastructure - the jobs, but also school places, GPs' surgeries, the transport infrastructure - that make these places not just dormitory suburbs.”

It sounds wonderful, and of course it’s meant to. Unfortunately, Barwell didn't seem to have taken on board the concerns of a previous housing minister, Grant Shapps. Shapps told the BBC that garden communities may in reality find it difficult to provide the facilities that would make them self-sustaining:

“What worries me about all of these announcements… is perhaps it is just a good

name to tag on to a housing development rather than somewhere which would be brilliant to live and you'd really want to live, bring up children, work and play… And if it is not all of those things, then we will have failed to actually

create new garden cities, we would have just tried to make housing sound more popular.”

Above: Hatfield Garden Village, Herts. Idyllic? So six years ago the problem with

‘garden communities’ was already spelled out for us by a one-time Tory housing minister: it might after all just be about trying to ‘make more housing sound popular’. Well, well.

But was Grant Shapps being unnecessarily pessimistic? Three years later, with some of the initial garden towns and villages now coming into existence, the BBC looked at the issue again. Their environment analyst Roger Harrabin quoted a recent report by Transport for New Homes, a group promoting alternatives to the car, which looked into how garden villages were developing. The report found that:

- All settlements but one failed to provide access to amenities with safe walking and cycling routes and a railway station within a mile of all new homes

- Residents in one garden village may have to walk up to seven miles to buy a pint of milk

- None of the 20 settlements would provide all-week bus services to all households through the day

- Cycle routes from the garden villages into nearby towns would often be long and dangerous.

Nor was this just one individual study’s take on the matter. A report the previous year by the campaigning organisation Smart Growth UK concluded that:-

- Nearly all the new crop of ‘garden communities’, like the existing ones, are to be built mostly on not previously developed greenfield land.

- They maximize the new infrastructure needs of development.

- They damage ecosystem services necessary to our well-being and survival, our water, most of our food and much of our flood control, timber, outdoor leisure and carbon sequestration,

-Their lay-out encourages motoring and discourages walking and cycling.

Hall Farm ‘garden village’ c. 2027? - Their access to public transport is

limited, and they seldom have access to urban public transport networks.

These studies inform us about the experience of actual garden villages, planned or already set up: they are not self-sustaining, they have poor public transport links and therefore encourage car use, and they signficantly degrade the natural environment.

Opposition to ‘garden village’ schemes is growing as communities become more aware of the problems with them. Some campaigns cast doubt on the ability of the authorities to ensure adequate infrastructure, given the modest amount of government funding provided. One campaign commissioned a sustainability appraisal of the local garden village proposal. It found the scheme lacked sustainable transport infrastructure, and warned that garden settlements can become car-dependent and create more traffic on local roads.

The University of Reading assured Facebook users it wanted a development that would be ‘sustainable’ and ‘reflect aspirations for a low-carbon society’. Then what’s the self-advertised 4th greenest university in the land doing supporting this kind of project?


Campaigns against ‘garden villages’

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