Thursday, 25 May 2017

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.

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