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.”