Garden Cities; the key to building strong communities?

Philip Ross

Monday, 16 December 2013

Garden Cities are back on the political and social agenda. The announcement today by Lord Wolfson of plans to hold a competition to build a new garden city in England is to be welcomed. There is general political consensus around the need to build new towns and settlements to address the housing and population growth. Cameron has expressed support for the principle of Garden Cities, as has Nick Clegg and as did Ed Miliband in his conference speech. 

New homes are desperately needed in the country, in fill and bolt on estates are not going to be enough to deal with the growing and backlog demand for homes. 

According to a recent report published by the BSHF the population of England is growing. In 2001 it was 49m and in 2011 it was 53m. This is accompanied by the growth in the number of households from 20.5m to 22.1m an increase of 158,000 households per year. This growth is projected to accelerate reaching 24.3m households by 2021 and increase of 221,000 households per year. We need more homes to deal with a chronic backlog of house building and this growth. The Future Homes Commission has called for 300,000 extra homes to be built every year in a “housing revolution” and this concurs with the BSHF and TCPA. 

The need for new homes in not disputed the discussion now moves to where and how. Indisputably the suggestion that new Garden Cities can be built sounds softer on the ear than new towns or estates. But what is a garden city? 

Some may think of it as just a new town with privet hedges but that is not our definition. The day before Ed Miliband’s speech a fringe meeting debated ‘building real garden cities with community ownership’. In attendance was Maurice Glasman a strong advocate for community land trusts, Kate Henderson the CEO of the TCPA, Steve Wyler CEO of the Locality the body that represents communities and bodies that control local assets, Pat Conaty of Co-ops and the author of the ‘Resilience Imperative and co-ordinator of last year’s conference on building garden cities (the report from the conference came out on the 5th December), myself former Mayor of Letchworth Garden City and author of the pamphlet ‘21st Century Garden Cities of to-morrow’ and chaired by Mrs Patricia Nevins from the New Garden City Movement. 

The meeting heard how garden cities had been originally established as social projects which aimed to bring planning and architectural practice together (combining the best of town and country) but also in a co-operative theme to capture the rising land value for the good of the local community not the crown or absent landlords. The theme of collective ownership is a strong part of the Garden City ideal, is supported by the TCPA and is one of the 12 principles in our book.  

The founder of the Garden City movement Ebenezer Howard believed that as investment went into the town and its infrastructure that the land values would subsequently increase. He called this the ‘unearned increment’ and instead of this going to absent landlords, speculative investors he was adamant that this should be captured for the local community and their benefit in perpetuity.   

This may all sound idealistic until you look at Letchworth and see that the company he founded to control the town still exists (though in one of many new forms over the last 110 years). Today it controls of assets worth £127m and makes an annual charitable spend of £7.5m. Not bad for a town of only 35,000 people.  

Milton Keynes though not a Garden City still adopted the principle of endowing the new town with assets. These assets worth £20m in 1991 (now worth £84m) and 5,000 acres are controlled by a trust. They generate revenue which pays for the upkeep of the parks and green spaces (about 25% of the city) in perpetuity so it doesn’t have to compete with the local council for funding. 

Community ownership does work and the idea of endowing assets is also a key feature of the BSHF report.  

The key is that Garden cities are not to be places of charity and paternalism but as places of citizenship and empowerment. With community ownership in the form of a community land trust or community land bank this can be done and they will foster participation in both the planning, development and governance of the city. Such that people will call themselves citizens of the garden city an appellation derived through a sense of place or ownership. As Kate Henderson of the TCPA told the Today programme it is about ‘capturing land value’ and Lord Wolfson talked of the need to focus on governance too. It is governance, ownership and other  issues that our tried and tested 12 principles focus on to define a real garden city. 

As for the competition I hope that those in the co-operative movement and elsewhere can forge together to put in a proposal in for this competition or in general. In Scotland this is on the blocks with the Co-op proposals for Owens town

Co-operatives UK published a report entitled ‘Common sense : Co-operative place making and the capturing of land value for 21st century Garden Cities’ on the 5th December. Edited and compiled by Pat Conaty and Martin Large. It is a series of contributions from varying authors following a conference on this theme in Letchworth last year. The report was launched by Lord Glasman. It should make necessary reading for all entrants to the competition. 

The winning entrant should be about more than sleek urban design, green space and environmental sustainable. These are parts of the picture but not all. It needs to be also be socially and economically sustainable providing long time affordable homes and capturing the prosperity from the value of the land in perpetuity for good of the community.  

I hope that all entrants will embrace the real ethos of a garden city in their entries to deliver the special ingredients that can turn houses, offices and factories into strong communities.  

Philip Ross is the former Mayor of Letchworth Garden City and founder of the New Garden City Movement.

Topics discussed:

Good SocietySustainability

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  1. Posted by Simon Norton

    How about building communities which challenge the view that cars are essential to quality of life ? If public education and public health can satisfy most people’s needs, why can’t public transport (plus of course bikes and occasional resort to a car club) ?