Garden cities are making for a fascinating debate. The country needs more homes and there is a good cross-party consensus on the need to build garden cities. There also seems to be growing sense of consensus that they should be locally led or community based. This weekend Nick Clegg told the BBC’s Countryfile that the government could buy homes blighted by developments or offer owners council tax cuts while building takes place and this sounds like a sensible approach as existing communities quite rightly need to be reassured. Part of the problem is that much of the debate has been on the number of houses that need building. They are anxious about developers pilling in to develop new houses.
The public recognises that developers are focused on how many houses they can build. Our starting point must be how we build communities, and more importantly how can we make them socially, economically and environmentally sustainable. What we do not want is 200,000 Brezhnev homes to be thrown up all over the country every year for the next ten years without a thought and just a focus on numbers. I am the former mayor of Letchworth Garden City. I would say we do want more Letchworths, more Welwyns and more Milton Keyneses. We want cities and towns that work and that create a sense of community. We are not proposing carbon copies of these towns but to build upon their success which is as much about their invisible architecture – the social building blocks not just on bricks and mortar.
The driving force behind the founder of the garden city movement, Ebenezer Howard, was not a desire to build new homes out of charity and paternalism for grateful subjects. The developers did that in the 1960s when they levelled communities and gave them in exchange tower blocks and Formica kitchens and expected them to be grateful. Garden cities are about participation, empowerment and citizenship. They are about creating a harmonious community at ease with itself and with the happiness of the people that live there at its core. Howard believed that to achieve this there needs to be a focus on the invisible architecture as much as it does on the physical. A key part of this is land value capture, such that rising land values can be captured for the people who live in the settlement, whether tenants or owners. As infrastructure is built into any community land values rise but the usual winners are the often absent landlords.
Consider the extension to the Jubilee line in the 1990s. The taxpayer invested £3.5bn, but following its completion property values within 1,000 yards of each of the eleven new stations jumped in value 3.7 times to £13bn. Who benefited from this windfall? Not the tenants in Southwark for sure, the rise in land values and following spikes in rents went to the landlords – most of them absentee corporate owners. This wealth was sucked out of the community right into the pockets of the wealthiest. The proposition for a garden city is instead to capture that wealth for the good of the people who live there.
As such in Letchworth a trust owns much of the commercial, industrial and agricultural land to the value of £127m which generates an annual revenue of £7.5m a year which it spends in the town. Not bad for a population of 35,000. Milton Keynes has a similar model which it uses to finance the running of its parks and open spaces. In the USA the community land trust movement is delivering similar benefits in places such as Burlington. This is not a utopian or outdated model from a previous century but one that works here and now and is delivering success.
Garden cities are about creating a sense of place, purpose and belonging for people and giving them a stake in their community. The Town and Country Planning Association have defined seven garden city principles. We have written a book – ‘21st Century Garden Cities of Tomorrow’ – which details 12 social principles upon which to build a socially, ecologically and economically sustainable city. We believe that this social contract is the most important part as it can act as charter or manifesto for a new settlement and be the guarantor underwriting the value and belief in the place. In the United Kingdom there is still the belief in some quarters that a garden city must be an ‘idealised’ place and is based on an old idea. We believe that the values and particularly the underlining social principles of a garden city that are about sharing, enjoyment and prosperity are not old, but are fresh, alive and well and need to lead any future debate.
What the public need is not just a compensation assurance but also a social contract that builds the trust for what a garden city is. Today’s agenda with new garden cities offer us a chance to get it right afresh. It means getting the trinity of planning, architecture and social values to work together. In doing so community-led garden cities can have a community-led definition that can inspire planners, architects and be the contract and covenant between them, the community surrounding new settlements and for future citizens.
We believe that at the heart of this will be the principles for land value capture for the community and commitments to be socially, economically and ecologically sustainable. The fair trade town’s assurance model is a good one to follow. People should be able to trust in the definition of a garden city and know that only a city that keeps it promises and follows the principles can be deserving of the garden city suffix.
A formal definition of a garden city is for communities and social groups rather than just developers or Whitehall to formulate and that is what we must do. It needs to occur with cross-party support the momentum to do this has begun already.
Garden cities are famous throughout the world as a ‘utopian ideal’ that worked. I embrace it, as I believe that it is the British skill in turning such hopes and dreams into reality that made this country great and we should not shy away from it now.
Philip Ross is a former mayor of Letchworth Garden City and is the founder of the New Garden City Movement. He is co-author of ‘21st Century Garden Cities of Tomorrow. A manifesto’.
Photo: Steve Cadman
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