All posts tagged: David Orr
I’ve always disliked the National Trust. I hate their twee, tacky giftshops and their bossy staff and the way they prissify and ossify our once-shaggy landed estates. But now my dislike has an additional justification - for the Trust’s campaign against proposed planning reforms in the draft National Policy Planning Framework is an utter disgrace.
Their website calls for the public’s support with these words: “Want to stand up for the everyday places you love? Support us in our opposition of government’s proposed planning reform by signing our petition.” The CPRE is no better, saying that, “the protection of precious countryside is going to be seriously weakened.”
This is hysterical tosh.
Reading this stuff would make you believe two falsehoods. One, that all of the land outside our towns and cities is precious and worth preserving at all costs, and two, that we live in a grossly overcrowded country, where the best parts of the countryside are about to be concreted over. In fact, the propaganda of the National Trust and the CPRE has obviously had an effect because Kate Barker commissioned a survey several years ago which showed that more than half the population believes that 50 percent of England is built upon. The true figure is around 10 percent and a significant proportion of that comprises parks and gardens. The Green Belt is 13 percent of our land and National Parks another 9 percent. In Holland, 20 percent of land is built upon.
The government’s sensible planning proposals, set out in the draft NPPF, mean that the Green Belt National Parks and areas of outstanding beauty will still be protected and local plans will protect those areas of landscape that local communities value. There will be a bigger emphasis upon community control of planning policies. If anything, the proposals are a charter for nimbysim. The biggest change is that, in the absence of a local plan or of national controls there will be a presumption in favour of development. And that makes sense. For too long our arcane planning system has hindered reasonable development. Kate Barker said we need 250,000 homes a year to restore balance to our housing markets – but we are building less than half of that figure. And more of these homes need to be the homes that people want – suburban houses with gardens close to existing towns and places of work. This means town extensions.
In Cambridge, where I live, 45,000 people have to jump the Green Belt every day, at great expense to their nerves and the environment, because the rigid planning girdle around the city has prevented development and forced house prices to ludicrous levels. Yet much of the Green Belt is marginal land that would benefit our economy and our environment if it were well developed. In fact, much our so-called precious countryside comprises chemical soaked fields that are inaccessible to the public. The bucolic vision of country life set out in The Archers (another pet hate!) is a myth. The average suburban garden contains much more wildlife than the average acre of countryside. The Royal Horticultural Society has described suburban gardens as “brilliant for wildlife.”
Even if every village in England agreed to build 20 new homes it would produce 135,000 homes. As David Orr says, “The absence of development is leading to the slow death of some villages as the school, the pub, the shop all close for the lack of the half a dozen new homes that would ensure young families can stay. New development in our towns and cities keeps the economy growing – and new mixed tenure, mixed income housing development in particular is critical for sustained economic growth.”
The Barbour brigade of the National Trust and the CPRE don’t appear to give a damn about affordable housing or the predicament of the millions of people in this country who cannot afford to buy or rent a home. Their selfish “I’m All Right Jack” attitude needs to be challenged. Tweet or write to your MP or ministers and tell them that you support their reforms to the planning system. It’s time to stand up for housing.
I sit on the Board of Howard Cottage Housing Association in Letchworth, and this is our centenary year. We were founded in 1911 by Sir Ebenezer Howard, the man who created the Garden Cities. His portrait watches over our meetings and, with his Biblical name and walrus-like moustache, he looks like a typical reactionary Edwardian gentleman. But dig a little deeper and you will find that Howard is very much a man of our times, for his vision encompasses many of our current pre-occupations, such as food miles, community land trusts, self sufficiency, social cohesion and eco-towns.
In 1898 Howard published his only book, “Tomorrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform”. It was re-issued in 1902 as “Garden Cities of Tomorrow”. The first title reveals his true intent, for Howard was a social revolutionary who saw the garden cities as “a stepping stone to a higher and better form of industrial life”, - a world where the worst aspects of city and country living would be eliminated, and only the best aspects retained.
Howard’s model Garden City was an estate of 6,000 acres, built on agricultural land, of which only 1,000 acres would be urban, giving a population of 30,000 at 30 to the acre. The remaining 5,000 acres would girdle the town and contain, fields, market gardens and workshops, allowing food and goods to be easily shipped to the town (low food miles). Sewage from the town would be used to fertilise the surrounding fields and power would be produced locally. Once the city reached its optimum population of 30,000 a new city would be built beyond the green belt and a radial set of cities would eventually be created with a larger central city at the core, each connected with an efficient rail system.
But here is the interesting part. The freehold of land within the Garden City would be held in trust for the benefit of its residents so that, as ground rents rose and the original mortgage was paid off, the revenues would fund the entire operation of the municipality, including health services, pensions and social insurance. This is a truly modern vision, a kind of eco-town which would be self sufficient and sustainable, where food miles are minimised and where a new system of land ownership allows the community to benefit from uplifts in values, providing a comprehensive welfare system semi-independent of national constraints. In truth, Howard was more than a century ahead of his time.
But unlike many theorists, Howard actually saw some aspects of his vision translated into reality. Under his leadership, work began on Letchworth, the world’s first Garden City, in 1903, and on Welwyn Garden City in 1920. However, like many revolutionaries, his theories were only partly understood and the notion of self-sustaining welfare states within each garden city has not been carried through, although the Letchworth Heritage Foundation still retains freehold ownership of a significant proportion of land and business premises and provides a range of services to the residents of the town.
The Garden City movement developed into the Royal Town Planning Institute, and Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1944 proposed a green belt and a wheel of new satellite towns around London. This was the direct result of Howard’s original vision. A few weeks ago Howard Cottage Housing Association hosted a centenary event where David Orr, John Lewis and James Tickell led a public debate that considered Ebenezer Howard’s impact upon present-day thinking. If you have any interest in the history of our sector and the development of town planning in the UK I urge you to re-visit Ebenezer Howard’s legacy.