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.

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Philip Ross was the mayor of Letchworth Garden City 2007-9

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Comments: 4...

  1. On March 29, 2012 at 12:03 pm Power to the people responded with... #

    “ere mate” “wot” “p’raps it don’t make like financial sense like to build them there nuclear power stations
    if nuclear fusion technology might arrive in 50 years and they’d be redundant then cos they’d have to like build new ones then maybe p’raps ,whadjyafink ? ” “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz , ooh, wot ? “

  2. On May 31, 2012 at 12:23 pm Letchworth Resident responded with... #

    Mr Ross, what you’ve written here is total bunkum. The district council has no intention of abolishing Letchworth town or the Garden City. Nearly everything you’ve written here is incorrect. Why the lies?

  3. On May 31, 2012 at 3:24 pm Guest responded with... #

    Mr Ross,

    From your appear to be totally deluded and a conspiracy nut .

    You have accused the HELP group of many things, I’d like to know how they seized power, I think you’ll find they won an election and were voted for by the people of the town, who were fed up of Letchworth Garden City becoming the local laughing stock.

    Had the town council listened when the Poll happened and changed their ways, then maybe it would have had a future, instead it blundered on fighting the minority fight and not recognising what the majority of the residents wanted.

    Now we just want to remove the council and be done with the whole sorry affair.

    Just stop the bitching and fighting, we don’t need a town council in Letchworth, there are many groups who are organising events and helping round the town and with the grants available from the Heritage fondation and NHDC why should we pay more in council tax.

    As for the whole council donations to charity, this is the most ineffecient form of giving. Where a direct contribution from a member of the public can gain gift aid, no sure kick back is available from a council donation.

  4. On June 19, 2012 at 7:07 am Ahlupton responded with... #

    Precisely which part of coming resoundingly bottom of the poll in 2009 is it that you cannot understand?
    We who have lived longer in Letchworth than you have lived anywhere resent your claim that, simply because you chose to give yourself the style of “Mayor” when you were Chairman of the irrelevant Town Council you can speak for Letchworth particularly when you cannot understand that fighting private battles (with the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation) with taxpayers’ money is just not on.
    You keep telling people how their money went to all sorts of “good works” but fail to see that we noticed that in four years your council took £1,496,000 from the taxpayers of Letchworth and distributed grants totalling only £116,000.
    As for your crack-pot idea that “the town is to be abolished” we all know who said that if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth!

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