As David Cameron seeks to revive the principles of garden cities with a consultation due later this year, Colin Wiles examines how likely it is that his vision will come to fruition
Imagine a town of 30,000 people, set in a thousand acres of cottage-lined, leafy avenues and local nature reserves. It has shops, museums and civic buildings at its centre. There are workshops and factories in zoned areas so people can walk or cycle to work, and it is surrounded by 4,000 acres of green belt where the town’s food and power are produced and its waste recycled. It’s connected by high-speed rail to similar nearby towns and the community owns the freehold land, so income from ground rents supports a local welfare state.
If this sounds like some far-fetched, futuristic utopian dream, you might be surprised to learn that a place almost like this has existed since 1903. It is Letchworth in Hertfordshire, the world’s first garden city, founded by Ebenezer Howard more than a century ago.
I say almost, because Mr Howard’s original vision of a self-supporting ‘eco-town’ set out in his 1898 book Tomorrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform, reissued in 1902 as Garden Cities of Tomorrow, was never quite realised.
I have to declare a vested interest, as I sit on the board of Howard Cottage Housing Association, which was founded by Mr Howard in Letchworth in 1911, and I have seen the qualities of the town at first hand.
Apart from having the largest colony of black squirrels in the country, Letchworth, which has a population of around 33,600, is also a great place to live. It was followed by Welwyn Garden City in 1920, but no more garden cities were built in England, although there are examples to be found all over the world, such as Greenhills in Ohio and Greenbelt in Maryland, both in the US.
Yet Mr Howard’s vision for self-sufficient new settlements may be undergoing a revival. Prime minister David Cameron is keen to see a new generation of garden cities. He floated the notion in a speech on 19 March, when he said: ‘Some people feel we’ve lost the art of creating great places with the right social and environmental infrastructure… in the last century, private and social enterprise also created places like Hampstead Garden Suburb [in London], Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City [in Hertfordshire] - not perfect, but popular - green, planned, secure, with gardens, places to play and characterful houses… we urgently need to find places where we are prepared to allow significant new growth to happen. That’s why we will begin consultation later this year on how to apply the principles of garden cities to areas with high potential growth, in places people want to live.’
Source: Rex Features
A week later, the new national planning policy framework, designed to shake up and reform the planning system, continued the theme: ‘The supply of new homes can sometimes be best achieved through… new settlements or extensions to existing villages and towns that follow the principles of garden cities.’
Mr Howard originally wanted Letchworth to be funded by workers’ co-operatives, but failed to elicit support for his reformist brand of municipal socialism. Instead, he was forced to turn to rich philanthropic investors such as soap manufacturer William Hesketh Lever and chocollate giant George Cadbury, who had already built model villages for their workers at Port Sunlight on Merseyside and Bournville in the west midlands. Letchworth was therefore built with private capital (following the credo of the 19th century colonialist Cecil Rhodes of ‘philanthropy at 5 per cent’). Rising rents funded infrastructure and community projects.
Today, the Letchworth Heritage Foundation still owns large tracts of the town, including shops, offices, an art-deco cinema and a farm. Its annual rental income of nearly £8 million supports a day hospital, some social care, the local Citizens’ Advice centre and a homelessness charity.
The revival of the garden city ideal is largely down to Alex Morton of the influential Policy Exchange think tank. His 2011 Cities for growth report proposes a spurt of new settlements, to be built, like Letchworth - and unlike the post-war new towns - by private companies with increasing land values and house prices pay for infrastructure.
But given the recent, fierce debate over the NPPF, how likely is it that such developments will go ahead, particularly in the south east where they are arguably most needed?
The NPPF explicitly states that: ‘New green belts should only be established in exceptional circumstances, for example when planning for larger scale development such as new settlements or major urban extensions.’
This seems to be an explicit offer to the anti-development lobby: accept growth and you get a new green belt in return. If the garden city revival is to succeed, the government will need to be bold and face down the countryside lobby. It could open the door for huge urban extensions in places like Oxford or Cambridge, in return for a pro-rata increase in green belt land.
So what might the new breed of garden cities look like? According to Mr Morton they will be settlements of around 200,000 people and close to existing towns and cities to generate economic growth.
The previous Labour government’s eco-town programme, you will recall, was a miserable failure. From a shortlist of 15, just one, Northwest Bicester in Oxfordshire, is going to be built to the original eco standards - the result of the proposed new settlements being too small and in the wrong places. So if the government is to revive the concept of new settlements it will have to be bold, think big and face down the countryside lobby.
In my view, a population of 30,000 is the absolute minimum to ensure self-sufficiency - enough to support secondary schools, swimming pools, cinemas and a range of employment opportunities. A new phase of garden cities should consist of carbon-neutral homes, set in relatively compact, attractive neighbourhoods of 25 to 50 homes per hectare. They should have fingers of countryside, and zoning for employment and industry so most of the population can walk or cycle to work and school, and should be surrounded by a green belt where residents can walk and wander at will. There should be opportunities for local food production and they should be connected to nearby towns with fast public transport.
Mr Cameron has promised a consultation on the garden city revival later this year. This is exciting news for the housing sector. I only hope that
Mr Howard’s radical vision and spirit will be an integral part of the process.
Colin Wiles is director of Wiles Consulting