PricedOut misses out on Wolfson Prize but finalists’ proposals are encouraging

Earlier this month, the shortlist for the 2014 Wolfson Economics prize to design a new Garden City was announced. The finalists include many heavyweight thinkers from the world of planning, development and urban design.

The competition – devised by Tory peer and Next chief executive Lord Wolfson – coincided with George Osborne’s Budget announcement for a new ‘Garden City’ at Ebbsfleet, as a solution to solve the UK’s ongoing housing crisis.

Launched in November last year, with an initial deadline at the beginning of March, the competition posed the question, “How would you deliver a garden city which is visionary, economically viable and popular?”

PricedOut entry

A small team including two PricedOut volunteers – Dan Wilson Craw and myself – attempted the challenge. Here's our entry.

We proposed a city initially funded through equity crowdfunding, providing a new economic hub expanding on an existing town away from South East (we picked Ancaster, near Grantham in Lincolnshire). This would provide choice and opportunities whilst playing a role in geographical rebalancing of the economy. The aim was to avoid building just another satellite commuter town.

Our vision was for a town that was robust, built slowly over time, with a mixture of social rent, private rent and self-built properties. As well as providing affordable housing, the city would provide broad employment opportunities. To achieve this we proposed a new industry initially in the manufacture of construction materials along with a learning centre for construction skills and a research facility. The town would become a centre for innovation in the construction industry, thus helping solve the problem of building resources whilst helping to build the town.

As the town grew we would develop the first commercial and creative village to provide low-cost space to attract the growing numbers of highly skilled enterprising young professionals, who are otherwise constrained by the cost of living elsewhere to take the risk on new business ideas. Our city would become a hub for the knowledge economy. These skills and goods would be exportable across the country and the world.

To gain support from existing local residents they would all be offered a personal financial stake. The development’s profits would be reinvested into the community through a trust.

Our city will suppress the burden on the taxpayer and boost support among both existing and incoming residents.

The shortlist

Sadly our paper was not shortlisted, but it was encouraging to see that many of our ideas appeared in the final 5:

  • Barton Wilmore proposed a 10 point road map to deliver a city that is inspired by the organic creation of the UK’s successful cities and historic towns.
  • Chris Blundell proposed a city of up to 30,000 inhabitants based on the original garden city concept designed with “extensive engagement with local people” led by a Garden City Development Corporation.
  • URBED proposed the doubling of an existing city
  • Shelter proposed a city that would “build itself” in the Hoo Peninsula (Medway, Kent). The focus was on attracting a vibrant community of renters and owners, major investors, self-builders, small firms, and local residents to create “a place for working, with high quality infrastructure to support services, technical and creative start-ups and light industry.”
  • Wei Yang proposed to develop an ‘arc’ stretching from Portsmouth to Oxford to Felixstowe tapping into the existing draw of the South East.

Common to all entries was the need for a long-term approach and a cross-party consensus. There was little desire to de-regulate the planning system, such is the aim of the current government, but instead to work with the process we do have. The so-called “planning gain” would be reinvested into the local community rather than in the pockets of a few lucky landowners and developers, thus creating a system that involves local people, so that prospect of development would become a “prize that cities will compete for,” (URBED) rather than something to fear and resist.

The entries moved away from the top-down, overly designed approach that was seen in the development of post-war towns and estates. Instead, these towns would be formed in a slow, organic fashion with rich and diverse designs created by local communities. Many entries, including URBED and Barton Wilmore, looked to the robustness and success of existing historic towns and cities for inspiration. URBED even chose to expand on an existing city.

Unlike our entry, there was little discussion about the geographical balance of economy with Wei Yang proposing to locate their city within the South East. However, the need for local jobs within the proposed city was prevalent in the entries. Blundell and Shelter proposed a similar local business hub for start ups, entrepreneurs and new industries.

Lord Wolfson’s plan is for a “real city to be built within the next 20 years as a result of this prize”. This is an exciting thought and if one or more of the ideas on the shortlist are taken forward then there could be hope for the future of housing and places in the UK.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that these ideas will appear in the Ebbsfleet development, where the government has managed to mistake a proposal for a new satellite town with a ‘Garden City’. It seems the scheme will replicate the approach of the past using the same large house builder (Ward Homes owned by Barratt) to build the same generic houses, with no affordable housing target. Profits will go to the few and not the many. There will be little local employment and sense of place. No identity. No vision.

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