London housing shortage:as UK's most famous 'new town' Milton Keynes turns 50, top economist Nicholas Falk reveals how we can build the homes London so badly needs

As Milton Keynes turns 50 and plans are revealed for 14 new towns, economist and urbanist Nicholas Falk says we should build on London’s fringe wastelands and remember that transport and homes must come as a package to create successful communities.

Click to follow

How are we to build the affordable homes and healthier neighbourhoods that London so badly needs? In 1943 at the height of the Second World War, town planner Patrick Abercrombie produced his scheme for rebuilding London.

Instead of the “muddle” of industry mixed up with war-ravaged housing, he proposed Comprehensive Development Areas — like those used in Paris today to develop areas around new railway capacity.

To relieve the pressures on inner London he suggested a string of New Towns where people would live and work, with a green belt to safeguard countryside on the edge of the capital’s built-up area.


Though some complained of New Town Blues and the loss of traditional communities, by and large the New Towns succeeded. Milton Keynes, the biggest and now 50 years old, protected the rest of Buckinghamshire from urban sprawl.

Read more: Milton Keynes celebrates 50th anniversary

Turning 50: the New Town of Milton Keynes was a success story, protecting the rest of Buckinghamshire from urban sprawl (Getty)

But times have changed. People no longer work where they live. The skilled manufacturing jobs that went with the promise of a new home built by the Development Corporation have gone.

Thousands are forced to travel to work and congestion has escalated along with air pollution and stress from long, unpredictable commutes, as people are unable to find places on the London housing ladder.

Redundant industrial land in the inner cities has largely been redeveloped. We must look elsewhere.


Consequently, the Government’s decision to support a new family of “garden settlements” must be welcomed. They include the long-debated scheme by Places for People to the north of Harlow station into East Hertfordshire.

However, British planning, unlike its Continental equivalent, fails to join up investment in transport infrastructure with new housing. Nor does it tap what Ebenezer Howard, the father of Garden Cities, called the “unearned increment” of land value uplift from public investment.

David Rudlin and I won the 2014 Wolfson Economics Prize for showing how to build visionary, viable and popular garden cities. The answer was to locate them on the edge of places where people most wanted to live and work.

As well as our plans for Uxcester Garden City, we showed how to double the size of Oxford, where the uplift in land values from building into the green belt could pay for new country parks to avoid flooding, and rail links to remove congestion from the historic centre.

This would also reduce the pressures on the many villages threatened by development. Recently The London Society, who were the first to promote the idea of green belts, in a White Paper on Reshaping London, showed how similar principles could apply to London’s neglected “Western Wedge” around Heathrow.

A new garden city would replace Northolt Airfield, which has been judged unsafe. Run-down yards along the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal but near Underground stations would be developed for mixed uses.

A green web would connect the countryside with the town. The Colne Valley would be upgraded into a country park to rival that of the Lea Valley.

Garden cities are about connection, not disconnection from the place of work. Not making the journey longer but making the journey work.


The battles will not be won simply by planners allocating land, and it will be vital to follow the Continental model of putting the infrastructure in first.

London’s financial expertise is needed to de-risk strategic developments and speed up house building of quality neighbourhoods. Without vital financial support, we have no chance of tackling the challenge of large-scale house building.

Dr Nicholas Falk is Visiting Professor at the School of the Built Environment, University of the West of England, and founder of urban development think tank and consultancy Urbed. He recently created The Urbed Trust. His fee is being donated to Shelter.

Follow us on Twitter @HomesProperty, Facebook and Instagram