Sunday, 01 March 2015

Garden City Blues

From: Inside out

If you are interested in the genesis of current housing policy you could do worse than visit the Policy Exchange website.

Founded by Francis Maude and Michael Gove in 2002 Policy Exchange has become the most influential right-of-centre Think Tank. Many of the ideas in Alex Morton’s 2010 “Making Housing Affordable” report have been taken up as government policy and Morton’s latest wheeze, the revival of the Garden Cities, was enthusiastically embraced in David Cameron’s speech on planning and infrastructure yesterday.

To summarise what Cameron said:

“We need homes for people who need them, in the places they want them, while protecting our fine landscapes and preserving the greenbelt…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, Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City - 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.

This is encouraging news. I’ve repeatedly argued on this blog that we need to build at least 3 million homes on greenfield land over the next twenty years, and new settlements and urban extensions are the only sensible way forward. It’s interesting that Cameron referred to Hampstead Garden Suburb in his speech. Built by Dame Henrietta Barnett with Raymond Unwin as chief architect in 1906 it is a city suburb, and this raises the possibility that the garden city concept could be applied to similar city extensions

Of course the originator of the Garden City idea was Ebenezer Howard, who built Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City in 1903 and 1920 respectively. That’s why Grant Shapps is also a fan. Howard’s vision was set out in his 1898 book “Tomorrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform”, re-issued in 1902 as “Garden Cities of Tomorrow”. Howard’s ideal Garden City was an area of 6,000 acres, developed on cheap agricultural land, where only 1,000 acres would be built upon, housing 30,000 people at 30 to the acre. The surrounding “green belt” would contain workshops, market gardens, institutions, and power and sewage works, where the food for the town would be produced and sewage would be used to fertilise the fields. Income from rising ground rents would be used to fund a local welfare state – paying for pensions and the dole, as well as the usual municipal functions. This is a thoroughly modern and revolutionary concept, an Eco-Town Plus if you like, although like most revolutionary concepts only a part of Howard’s vision was put into practice.

But if the government is to be successful with its Garden City vision it will need to be bold and face down the countryside lobby.  The eco-town fiasco proposed sites that were too small and in the wrong places. Garden cities will have to be large enough to be self-sufficient in terms of jobs and amenties. This means a population of at least 30,000 - big enough to support secondary schools, swimming pools, cinemas etc - and they will have to be remote from existing towns and cities to avoid excessive car journeys, but also well connected with public transport. Urban extensions willl need to be ambitious, well-planned suburbs that are connected to both countryside and city. 

The final version of the National Planning Framework is due to be published within the next few days. It will be intersting to see if the revised national policy can put Ebenezer Howard’s modern vision into practice.

Readers' comments (6)

  • Chris

    Would the current Labour Party die of shame though if it was left to the most reactionary band of ultra-right wing Thatcherite progeny to implement the full socialist planning of the Garden City concept and the sustainable economic model that goes with it?

    Perhaps Labour could recover from their Blairite years of shame and current abysmal pretence of opposition by re-embracing the New Town movement, but taking it further and applying the model to city redevelopment. For instance, there is no reason why the London metropolis could not be returned to the separate communities that it once was, using technology to replace the need to commute and using Howard’s principles to create sustainable human scale conurbations, each within its own green space.

    It is though always rewarding to see one's own ideas achieving wider consideration!

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  • Tony Cook

    Besides the advent of the First World War and the rise of municipal housing thereafter, I believe the movement suffered principally from antipathetic legislation designed to prevent financial governance through mutual (co-operative) forms of tenure.

    Once the latter was given legislative sanction, in the late 1970's, government then ensured its attachment to a Garden City model of development never left the drawing board.

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  • what scares me about building on greenfield land is much of the greenfield land is A1 productive use. So when in 10 years we are starving to death or food poverty wars commence, we would have built ugly "Barratt" boxes all over it. We need to start thinking about better urban planning, home design before uprooting valuable crops in the name of development, and I am a developer!

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  • Chris

    Hi Martin, I agree with you.

    Our major towns are where they are because they had good access to water, arable land, and the raw materials essential to the industry of the time.

    In our current age the industry of our time is not dependent on coal seams or iron ore; all we need is a good broadband connection. That means that so long as we can have efficient access to water, and keep food miles sustainable, our homes could be anywhere on the planet.

    Making good use of the technology we have been so clever to invent makes more sense now than ever; yet company owners would rather see us crammed into cattle wagon conditions at vast personal expense, or pay over the odds for petrol to commute into overcrowded city centres and spend all day in an office we do not need to be in. Forcing office based staff to prop up otherwise unsustainable privatised companies and hot housing the whole south-east may make economic sense to the top 1% who gain from it, but it is draining the economies of the rest of us, and damaging the environment to boot.

    If those who need to be located close to the customers because of their role were not competing with back room staff for housing and resources, so much more affordability would be introduced.

    So siting the new towns on A1 land does not have to be the outcome of backing the Howard concept. Indeed - if you look at the new towns that were built you will note that poor farming land and land of little alternative value was prioritised for development so long as it had reasonable potential for good communications. These days good communications does not have to be road and rail but simply an optical fibre.

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  • "all we need is a good broadband connection" ... "our homes could be anywhere on the planet"

    But most of us have good broadband connections and we still cluster together to live, work and play. The internet has driven demand for more travel, not less.

    We are social animals, and usually more productive and innovative in close proximity. What else explains London?

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  • Commerce, Trade, and the need to exploit

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