Posted by: Colin Wiles27/09/2011
Does Inside Housing exert an influence on the minds of housing ministers and the right-wing press? I only ask because my article in July extolling the virtues of Ebenezer Howard and his Garden Cities has been followed by both Grant Shapps (The Guardian 19th September) and The Daily Mail (26th September) claiming that Garden Cities are the solution to many of our housing problems.
The Daily Mail article (“Proof you can build new homes, and keep England green”) claims that Garden Cities could be a solution to the current battle over the draft National Planning Policy Framework. They highlight the role of the Mail’s proprietor Lord Northcliffe in supporting Ebenezer Howard (he invested in £1,000 of shares) and in promoting the Garden Cities in his papers, to the extent that they were called “Daily Mail Towns”. For the first time in my life I am in agreement with the paper that once supported the Blackshirts. The headline may sound slightly oxymoronic but I’ve argued before that Letchworth probably contains more wildlife in its parks and gardens than much of the surrounding countryside. I was there last week and counted six black squirrels in a twenty yard stretch of hedgerow.
Grant Shapps praises the Garden Cities for their self-sufficiency and their freedom from state control, unlike their later counterparts the new towns. They chime with his passion for self build and community land trusts. And he is right. Howard built both Letchworth and Welwyn entirely with the help of private investors like George Bernard Shaw and without any government support. The question is, could it happen today?
Howard’s vision was for self-sufficient towns of around 30,000 people where the municipality would retain the freehold interest in land and use the income from ground rents to fund its activities, including education, welfare and pensions. The town would be self sufficient in employment so that people could cycle or walk to work, and sewage would be recycled into the surrounding market gardens. This is a revolutionary concept, based on the writings of Kropotkin and other visionaries, and is reflected in the 2007 prospectus for eco-towns. But the problem of eco-towns, apart from local opposition (only one of the original fifty sites is still active) is that they were simply too small to be self-sufficient. Howard understood that you need at least 1,500 hectares and 30,000 people to make a town self-sufficient – that means secondary schools, shops, cultural facilities, swimming pools and all the other facilities that stop people going elsewhere for their basic needs. But are we seriously going to find sites of 1,500 hectares for new Garden Cities in the south-east where they are most needed? My housing association colleagues in Hertfordshire tell me that they can barely build a garden shed without howls of protest from local residents. It will need resolute action from the housing minister and his colleagues to see this vision through. Given the furore over the relatively mild provisions in the draft National Planning Policy framework I see little chance of success, but I wish the housing minister well in his endeavour.
From Inside out
An independent look at the housing sector and beyond from Colin Wiles