Defending progressive cities
As the former mayor of Letchworth Garden City I found it refreshing to read David Cameron’s recent praise of our town and Garden Cities in general.
But while Cameron was praising the virtues of Letchworth, the Conservative-run North Herts District Council was publishing a document that seeks to abolish the very same garden city.
Yes, you read that correctly. The Conservative-run district council is seriously proposing that both the town council and the actual town of Letchworth Garden City itself be abolished. I am not sure what the town would be known as in the future – perhaps ‘the town formerly known as … ’? The only precedence I known of is that of the abolition by French revolutionaries of the city of Lyons, renaming it Ville Sans Nom. It is an apt comparison.
Letchworth is the world’s first garden city. Built by progressive social reformer Ebenezer Howard, it is celebrated by communities throughout the world. Now it is planned to abolish the first one – a casualty to petty Conservative instincts on localism and accountability.
Let me explain. If Cameron had looked beyond the flowerbeds, trees and open spaces into the deeper history of garden cities he would have found progressive – not conservative – foundations. The city was based on the principles of citizenship and empowerment, not the usual Conservative virtues of charity and paternalism.
And while the town may have long ago swapped the Daily Worker for the Daily Mail, a vein of radicalism and commitment to the town’s founding principles remains strong among people of all political colours.
This progressive movement has, of course, been in an almost eternal struggle with more reactionary and conservative (with a small ‘c’) forces in which an ‘old boys’ network’ has sought to run the town its own way.
Such regressive forces actually got the suffix ‘Garden City’ dropped from the town’s name. At the time, they felt that ‘garden cities’ had too much of an association with previous residents and guests such as Lenin, Orwell, Bernard Shaw and the old Independent Labour party. It was restored in 2003.
The fact that the town was a true community land trust in which each resident owned a share presented an opportunity in the 1950s for some predatory capitalists to start buying up the shares to asset-strip the town. We were rescued by an act of parliament that turned the town into a corporation and later into a private company with charitable objectives.
When I was mayor we reasserted the garden city principles – only to be taken to the High Court for daring to hold a public meeting that discussed the future governance of the town. We won our case – and the judge helped save the true garden city movement when he ruled that the town was accountable to its citizens and was still a community land trust.
To bring this tradition up to date, a group called Help Eliminate Letchworth Parish seized control of the town council in 2009 on an average 47-53 per cent split of the vote. Their agenda was to abolish the council because they were opposed to all spending, including support for such charitable organisation as the British Legion, homeless groups, old people’s trips, youth groups, residents’ associations and ethnic minorities.
Like a ratepayers’ association, they promised lower taxes and to be a non-spending council – this despite spending £500,000 on sacking staff and closing offices without spending a penny on the community.
Now anxiously facing near-bankruptcy, with elections looming next year and their support having dwindled away, they have asked their allies on the district council to expedite the abolition of the council – this without legal advice and going against legislative guidance.
They have also presumably decided that to stop a council ever being re-established it is best to abolish the town altogether. Rumour has it that they plan to re-parish the garden city as just the richer parts of town, excluding the larger social housing estates. Ebenezer Howard will be turning in his grave.
What is clear is that while Cameron and Eric Pickles may have genuine feelings for the virtues of garden cities, the true Conservative instinct evident here shows how they are really implementing the ‘big society’ – and their vision is not one of grass-roots localism and neighbourhood empowerment but of small-minded town hall bureaucracy and control where the ‘old boys network’ remains firmly in control. I hope I am wrong.
For our part, though, the battle goes on. We will not give up the fight to save the garden city and the true principles and values that it represents.
Philip Ross was the mayor of Letchworth Garden City 2007-9
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Conservatives, David Cameron, Eric Pickles, garden cities, George Orwell, Letchworth, localism