Nick Clegg is to move on Monday to differentiate the Liberal Democrats from the Tories on the highly contentious issue of garden cities by pledging to build five new towns along a train line linking Oxford and Cambridge.
The deputy prime minister, who accused the Tories earlier this year of adopting a nimby approach to house building, will say that the plan will help to create an extra 50,000 new homes in an area of intense demand for housing in the home counties.
A coalition row over housing flared up earlier this year after it emerged that the Tories had declined to publish a Whitehall report which suggested that two new garden cities needed to be built in southern England to relieve pressure on housing.
Clegg will say that the Lib Dems would insist in any future coalition negotiations that 10 new garden cities should be built, with five along a new express railway line linking Oxford and Cambridge. This used to be dubbed the “varsity line” but Clegg is now calling it the “garden city line”.
The coalition government has already announced plans to improve the line from Oxford to Bedford. Under the Lib Dem plans, funding for the modernisation of the line from Bedford to Cambridge would be provided once the structural budget deficit has been eliminated in 2018. The journey time from Oxford to Cambridge, which takes two and a half hours, would be cut to 60 minutes.
But he will make clear that the new towns would not be imposed on communities and that the Lib Dems would provide incentives to encourage support for the new towns. They would offer the new towns, of 9,000-15,000 homes, the chance to have an “express station” where faster trains would make stops. Clegg cites the example of Bedford, which has recently been given permission to build 18,000 additional homes.
Clegg, who is speaking of boosting links along the “brainbelt of Britain”, will say: “Britain faces a housing crisis. Every day, 200 fewer families own their own home, as homeowners die and more young families get stuck renting, unable to afford to buy.
“Housebuilding is stuck in the doldrums, with nowhere near enough homes being built to meet demand and keep prices affordable for those families desperate for a home of their own.
“Garden cities are a vital cornerstone of our plan to boost house building to 300,000 homes a year – enough to meet demand and keep prices in reach – while still protecting our precious green space and preventing urban sprawl. Our plan is to build a series of high quality new towns and cities where people want to live, with green space, sustainable transport and spacious homes.
“The Conservatives have held back the development of garden cities on the scale necessary, but if Liberal Democrats are part of the next government, we will ensure at least 10 get under way – with up to five along this new garden cities railway, bringing new homes and jobs to the brainbelt of south-east England.”
The Lib Dems insist they are planning to act in the national interest and are not motivated by electoral considerations. The parliamentary seat of Oxford West and Abingdon was held by the Lib Dems between 1997-2010, while Julian Huppert, the backbench campaigner on civil liberties, faces a tough fight to retain Cambridge for the party.
Clegg’s announcement is designed to show the sort of ideas the Lib Dems would propose in future coalition negotiations. It is also designed to show how the Lib Dems can face up to the challenge of building the 300,000 extra houses needed a year to tackle Britain’s housing crisis.
Clegg accused the Tories of adopting a nimby approach earlier this year when the Daily Telegraph disclosed that Downing Street was sitting on a Whitehall report which said that two extra garden cities were needed to relieve the pressure on housing. Tim Farron, the Lib Dem party president, told the Telegraph in January: “It is time to break the logjam. This report needs to come out now and come out quickly. The Tories are displaying a nimby attitude towards garden cities.”
The Lib Dems have identified Bicester for what they describe as “locally led garden cities”. Sir Tony Baldry, the local Tory MP, is keen to expand Bicester which lies on the new route. Other areas are Aylesbury, Ampthill, Leighton Buzzard, Sandy, St Neots and Great Cambourne.
A Lib Dem source said: “The absolutely critical thing to stress is nobody is going to impose these extra houses. That is absolutely not what is happening.
“With all our garden city models, the local community want to do it and the benefit to them will be that they get better infrastructure.”
COMMENT: As far as I can see he’s talking about building new cities in the green belts instead of slowly eating away and eroding at the edges of the green belt with small developments. I won’t mind as long as it isn’t a concrete jungle with solar panels and a park in the middle. I look forward to seeing the seeing the details of their plans, will it be sustainable energy wise, deal with their waste internally, capturing all available water, creating food forests among and in-between houses, shops run and sourced locally, a focus on transport links and buses run on renewable, electric car points at parking areas etc. All I’m hoping is that it’s a holistic approach and not a gimmick, it needs to be a long term goal and model for future living.