First published in Canvas: 16th June 2012

In September 2011, the Housing Minister Grant Shapps asserted that the Government had to find creative solutions to England’s chronic housing shortage.1 He is correct. Estimates for 2011 showed that 240,000 new, affordable houses are needed each year to meetcurrent consumer demand. Yet in the last half of 2011, just 454 affordable housing unites were started on site in England, of which just 259 were designated for social rents. This number is paltry compared to the 1.8 million households currently on the social housing waiting list.2 Though the impact has been partially softened by the recent news of upgrade grants to councils3 – there are currently around 720,000 empty homes across England – and government backed mortgage loans, schemes such as these fall far short of bridging this gap.

In an attempt to offer a solution, Shapps encouraged town planners to rediscover the work of Ebenezer Howard, whose Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1898) described a future utopian ‘garden city’ where men lived harmoniously with nature. Garden Cities inspired two real life garden cities, Letchworth and Welwyn. Government, Shapps stated, should “strip away some of the baggage…of state control” that had marked earlier new town projects – a reference to the ongoing overhaul of the planning system – and challenged the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) to start discussions with developers, designers and community groups to reinvent the garden city for the 21st century: in the words of Ebenezer Howard, that which combines “the health of the country with the comforts of the town.”

The idea is growing in popularity among ministers. In preparation for the 2012 Budget, Cameron joined Shapps in supporting the idea in a speech given to the Institute for Civil Engineering. “The growth of our towns and cities has been held back,” he claimed, “by a planning system which has encouraged development of the wrong sort in the wrong places. We need homes for people who need them, in the places they want them, while protecting our fine landscapes and preserving the greenbelt. It seems to me that our post-war predecessors had the right idea, embodied in the visionary plan prepared by Patrick Abercrombie in 1944. But in the last century, private and social enterprise also created places like Hampstead Garden Suburb, Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City – not perfect, but popular – green, planned, secure, with gardens, places to play and characterful houses; not just car-dominated concrete grids.”4

Though the invocation of garden cities rhetoric is refreshing, there is a danger that Howard’s ideas are being misappropriated in order to veil the Coalitions true intentions: the bulk of Cameron’s speech focused on the the possible privatisation of roads, information infrastructure, and power grids. Shapps is similarly vague, finding time to highlight Milton Keynes, as an example of government interference in town planning: in this instance, he suggested that the state had discouraged families from decorating their houses, a baseless accusation. Importantly, he admitted to not having any fixed ideas on how the cities would be built. “In the new world of localism,” he claimed, “it won’t be up to me. It will be up to people who support the garden city concept to win the arguments – not to impose their ideas but to work with communities to realise their own vision for the future.”5

Such an attitude underestimates the scale of the housing crisis, and misinterprets Howard’s original conception. Howard envisaged small settlements of around 30,000 inhabitants, surrounded by agricultural land. These settlements would form a network of small cities that would supplant the big industrial cities as the dominant form of urbanisation. Garden cities, Howard claimed, would reverse the process of city migration through profitable employment that would harness the productive forces of the community and stimulate demand for commodities. “There is a general consensus of opinion,” they claimed, “that the continual growth of our large cities…is an unhealthy sign. The problem to be solved may be stated thus: – How, in the midst of the fresh air and beauty of the country to create opportunities of profitable industry, prospects of advancement, and pleasant forms of social life?”6

Howard drew intensely from the ideas of industrial conscience, in line with the views of Robert Owen, and George Cadbury, both of whom had built model worker villages in order to take care of their employees. The first conference of the Garden Village Movement was held in Bournville, the worker village for the Cadbury’s. It was these men, as well as cooperatives, who Howard wished to do business with; the First Garden City Corporation was swelled by their ranks. When the cooperatives failed to invest, however, he was forced to make concessions in order to attract industrialists – who viewed cooperative ownership as a form of socialism – to invest. Despite this setback, Howard’s ideas were used by town planners sporadically around the world, a notable example being the Australian capital, Canberra.

In May 2012, the TCPA delivered two reports in fulfilment of the challenge set by Shapps. The first, Creating Garden Cities and Suburbs Today, called on the government to consider the case for selling public sector land at a reduced price where this is “demonstrably in the public interest.” This would, they claimed, open up the prospect of producing high-quality communities, with a meaningful proportion of social and affordable housing, and would give good returns to tax payer. Led by joint ventures between councils, landowners and developers should, each garden city would have at least 40% of it area allocated to green space, with half of that in the public domain. “Over the last century Garden City ideals have proven outstandingly durable…” it stated, “if the nation is serious about delivering high-quality sustainable new Garden Cities and Suburbs, we will need leadership…the Government must make a sustained commitment to Garden City Principles.”7

The second, Heathrow Garden City, considers the future of the Heathrow Airport site in the event that the government decides to build a new airport elsewhere.8 Such a site, they claim, would match perfectly with Howard’s ethos. A new settlement on the site would consist of four garden suburbs and two urban villages, providing homes for more than 30,000 people, an employment for over 80,000, plus thousands of construction jobs during the building phase. Other features would include a retail park, a business park, an education campus, and 35 hectares of open water. “Heathrow Garden City’ illustrates how the airport site could provide homes, employment and a full range of facilities and services served by good public transport, all set in an attractive landscape…beautiful, environmentally sustainable, socially successful, financially sound and democratically delivered and governed.”

If the appeal to emulate Howard is serious, then the government is to congratulated. Garden cities would not act merely as commuter towns, but as thriving communities where individuals come together to advance forward juster conditions which favoured the weaker members of society, and offer a wide variety of employment, possess greater productive power and enhanced wages, areas for recreation and low rents. “My proposals,” he claimed, “appeal not only to individuals but to co-operators, manufacturers, philanthropic societies, and others experienced in organisation, and with organisations under their control to come and place themselves under conditions involving no new restraints but rather securing wider freedom.”9

Perhaps more realistic set of proposals to follow are those of Raymond Unwin, a one time colleague of Howard, who proposed that ‘garden suburbs’ were more realistically achievable. In a speech entitled “Nothing Gained by Overcrowding,” given to the Garden Cities and Town Planning Association in 1912, Unwin stated that if it was desirable to limit the size of new cities such as Letchworth, and surround them with an agricultural belt, then surely it was “more desirable to make some effort to secure definite belts of open space around existing towns and to encourage their development by means of detached suburbs grouped around some centre and separated from the existing town by at least sufficient open ground to provide for fresh air, recreation and contact with growing nature.”10

The practical application of Unwin’s suggestion is best expressed in the potential redevelopment of brownfield sites. In a 2011 study, Building in a Small Island the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) stated that there was enough “brownfield land” to build 1.5million new homes. Crucially, more than 143 square miles of brownfield land had been developed since the mid-1990s, and sites are being re-designated as brownfield at a rate which currently outstrips construction demand. With enough organisation, attractive new suburban centres could be planned on these sites. “Aristotle defined a city,” Unwin once said, “as a place where men live a common life for a noble end. The movement towards town improvement…must have for its aim the creation of such a city…whether our cities will indeed become great works of art will principally depend on the prevalence of the aim towards that noble end.”11

1Grant Shapps ‘Garden Cities: Reshaping the Ideas of the Past for the 20th Century’ The Guardian, Monday September 19, 2011

2’Sharp Fall in New Affordable Housing Construction,’ The Guardian, Tuesday November 22, 2011

3’Councils Share in £85 Million Fund to Tackle Empty Housing,’ Construction News

4’David Cameron: Speech on Infrastructure to the Institute of Civil Engineering, London 19th March 2012

5Shapps, Garden Cities

6 “The Garden City Project”

7Creating Garden Cities and Suburbs Today, Report by the TCPA

Click to access TCPA%20Garden%20Cities.pdf

8Graham Bell Heathrow Garden City, 2012

Click to access Tomorrow_Series_HeathrowGardenCity_GBell.pdf

9Robert Beevers, The Garden City Utopia: A Critical Biography of Ebenezer Howard, MacMillan 1988

10Raymond Unwin ‘Nothing Gained by Over Crowding’ Speech to the Garden Cities and Town Planning Association, 1912 in Walter L. Creese, The Legacy of Raymond Unwin: A Human Pattern for Planning, MIT Press, 1967


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