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Is the pre-local election season really the right time to announce new garden towns?

By Paul Goodman

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Buried away in the Financial Times's (£) story this morning about a "joint appearance on the eve of the Budget" that David Cameron and Nick Clegg will apparently make - to "make several announcements, including shared equity schemes, social housing and support for first-time buyers" - was the following detail:

At the housing launch, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg will also promise new “garden towns”, more flats above shops and an expanded private rented sector.

Now it may well be that the reference to garden towns in the appearance will be vague, that no dogs will bark, and that the caravans will move on.  However, this may not be so - in which case while there may be no electoral risk to the Liberal Democrats, there will most certainly be one to the Conservative Party.

The Financial Times's story links back to an earlier piece in the paper which reported Nick Boles's speech in which the Planning Minister declared that the percentage of green land that should be built on should increase from 9 to 12 per cent.  The paper noted that Clegg had recently promised “garden cities and suburbs for the 21st century”.

I'm all for more infrastructure spending on road and rail (though very sceptical indeed about HS2), nuclear power stations, and airports - though the big decision on the latter has been postponed until after 2015.  Housebuilding has its part to play, too, and I like Boles's localist ideas, which draw on the work of Policy Exchange.

There's more to come: the think-tank is shortly to produce recommendations about self-build.  But we're at the wrong point of the political cycle for any big move on garden towns or cities.

  • The Telegraph and Mail will go bonkers.
  • They will be doing so during the run-up to May's country council and other elections, many of which will take place in the Tory shire heartlands.
  • If UKIP has any tactical sense (which I think it does) it will exploit any plans ruthlessly, neatly if dishonestly linking them to Romanian and Bulgarian migration next year.
  • It might be worth the political risk of all this if the towns actually got built.  So, at any rate, some of those who want more homes for young people would argue.  But this won't happen before 2015: indeed, it must be doubtful whether any new schemes would see substantial work at all.

The time to begin undertaking a project of this kind as at the beginning of a Parliamentary cycle, not in the middle of it.  Any such scheme will build few homes, if any, but lose of votes - oh, and discredit any further garden town or city proposals, probably for quite some time.  To borrow a phrase from Douglas Hurd, David Cameron should give this madness a miss.


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