This summer’s riots have brought into sharp focus once again the issues surrounding citizenship and social inclusion. The idea of a ‘big society’ exists in natural progressive territory. Yet the Tories approach it from the right and we approach it from the left. Their road to the ‘big society’ is paved with charity and paternalism: good deeds and support endowed on grateful subjects who in turn offer their deference and respect. We approach it from the left, along an avenue where we would empower people to take charge of their own communities as citizens not grateful subjects.
Two powerful progressive examples have been the Cooperative and the Garden City movements. The Cooperative movement grew from the Rochdale principles as set out in 1844 which focused on how people could work together for their common benefit. The Garden City movement was inspired by a book by Ebenezer Howard in 1903. He described how a town could be owned by its citizens who would be their own landlords. The revenue generated by the town would be reinvested back into the community for the common good. By design it would bring together the best of town and country together.
The first Garden City was Letchworth. It was initially a hot bed of radicalism and socialist thought. Orwell, Bernard Shaw and others, including the Independent Labour party, were active in the town. As time went by the town’s people swapped the Daily Worker for the Daily Mail, and Letchworth became a leafy commuter town with good links to London. The ‘Garden City’ suffix which had been dropped from the name some decades before because of its association with radicalism was restored in 2003 because of a modern positive association with higher house prices. Sadly, worldwide it is the Garden City town design principles and not the social principles that have more often been copied.
I was Letchworth’s mayor in 2008-9. By then Howard’s founding Garden City company had evolved to become firstly a public corporation and then in 1995 a private Industrial and Providential Society called the Heritage Foundation, both created by an act of parliament. Its focus was the management of and generation of revenue from the estate, most of which it owned. Its early radicalism had been replaced with a focus on architecture, preservation and the height of garden hedges. It ran the town in an autocratic and feudal manner.
As mayor, I chaired a public meeting that questioned the way the foundation was run and how it spent its revenues. The response to this was a series of High Court writs demanding an end to any discussion of the foundation’s operations. To their surprise we refused to be intimidated and contested the writs robustly. At the High Court they declared they were simply a private property company like ‘Grosvenor Estates’ in London. We asserted that they were a community land trust and were made for the people of the town by Parliament and were accountable to them. In a landmark ruling the Judge backed us. The result asserted the precedence of community land trusts and that organizations couldn’t set aside their accountability and their responsibility to their communities. Having lost their credibility and with costs of over £100,000, the management of the Foundation has now been replaced with more enlightened officers.
I have since established with academics and activists from London (UCL), China, Portugal and the Netherlands the New Garden City Movement, a group which seeks to establish principles to define a Garden City for the 21st century.
This summer I attended a Cooperative movement conference which brought leading thinkers together to focus on the topic of Cooperative Garden Cities.
Our aim is to share with developing industrialising nations a progressive message on how to turn houses, factories and offices from just bricks and mortar into communities as well as trying to apply the same message here at home. There will be a further meeting of the Cooperative Garden City delegates. As for the New Garden City Movement, we have drafted up our ten principles focused around citizenship and community land trusts and hope to publish them with some narrative later this year. I would welcome the support and encouragement of Progress readers and supporters.
Philip Ross is a former mayor of Letchworth, founder of the Labour Small Business Network, and writes the Labour & Small Business Column
Photo: Steve Cadman
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