Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Building a ‘New Garden City Movement’

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

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Philip Ross

is a member of LFIG and the founder of the Labour Small Business Forum which wants to build a network of Labour members in small business and identify those in every constituency. To get involved contact Philip at #philiprosslgc


  • Sounds a good idea but do let us forget this silly label- big society- it means nothing. Societies are neither big nor small as society has no physical dimension, being merely a term to describe certain human arrangements for living.

  • […] Preparing for : Back to the Future – Co-ops and Garden cities in Letchworth This week Letchworth Garden City is hosting a conference on community land trusts with the aim of putting social ownership of land and public assets back on the political agenda.. It is bringing together leading thinkers from the co-operative and garden city movements with architects and social thinkers to provide progressive answers to sustainable development and ownership. You could call it ‘big society’ thinking. To be truthful if you had put a Labour badge on the ‘Big Society’ I would have voted for it, and I don’t think I would have been alone. Of course the varnish on that offering has come off as I don’t think the Tories meant the same as us especially when they realised it was about empowerment and the real transfer of power to the people. I think they had in mind more of a paternalistic model with charity at its centre. Though most of the big society thinking seems to have been put to the back of the cupboard one idea seems to have survived -the idea of community ownership of assets. Boris had a section in his manifesto about community land trusts and the first London one was set in Mile End in July. To be fair he seemed to get it but elsewhere the Tories have tried to implement a bastardised form of it, basically withdrawing council funding from assets and asking the communities to pay for things themselves. Not quite the same thing. Community land trusts (CLT) like in London’s Mile End are a good thing and derive from two great 20th century British land movements –  the co-operative and garden city movements. You may think of garden cities as being very conservative places with high house prices that David Cameron praises. But when the Garden City movement was founded it was anything but conservative. For instance while Lenin was in exile in London he attended garden city meetings and even stayed for a while in Letchworth the first garden city. It is record that  ‘Ilyich would listen attentively, and afterwards say joyfully: “They are just bursting with socialism!”’. This is in part because the first Garden City – Letchworth – had as its social foundation stone the concept that the whole town would be community owned. Ie a community land trust. The profits generated by the City as its own landlord would be used for the benefit of the people who lived there they wouldn’t leave the city to benefit  some absent landlord. It was a radical concept and was only adopted in Letchworth as more conservative elements blocked its adoption on other garden cities. Yet the company that founded Letchworth endures and still exists in a form today with a community mandate. Though the town itself dropped for many years the suffix ‘garden city’ because of its radical connotations only to bring it back in 2003 to help with house prices. As with football the garden city movement and the idea of community land ownership went abroad and is now played better in the rest of the world. In the USA there is a burgeoning community land movement normally combining the principles of co-op ownership in housing projects. Burlington in Vermont is a good example but there are hundreds of others throughout the USA. The attraction of them is that they have haven’t suffered as a result of the sub-prime crisis – there have been few or no repossessions. But perhaps garden cities and CLTs like football is coming home. Prof. Yves Cabannes from the DPU Bartlett College of UCL and I have written a pamphlet detailing what we believe are the 11 social principles needed to build a 21st century garden city. In May this year we went to Hong Kong, Beijing and Chengdu to discuss and present the principles. China where they are still building new cities are very interested. We found similar interest when we presented them at the UN Habitat World Urban Forum in Naples in September. This week we have the conference in Letchworth entitled ‘Back to the future’. As noted It is bringing together the key thinkers from the co-operative movement, garden cities, housing and sustainability experts from throughout the country. It doesn’t matter if you call it ‘big society’, ‘localism’ or whatever. It’s what it does is that counts. My hope is that this will the first of many steps of putting social ownership, not by the state but by the people is back on the agenda. It is both radical and progressive and that’s why I support and fight for it. If Labour is looking for a big idea, one that fits under the ‘one nation’ heading and will see us retake the centre ground around the ‘big society’ and is both progress and radical in nature but is at the same time traditionally British. Well I think this is it. (this meeting follows on from the meeting reported before at : […]

Sign up to our daily roundup email