Garden cities: a peaceful path to social reform

Can a new All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) persuade a cynical public that garden cities can be much more than a marketing slogan?

Garden cities have always been greeted with a degree of cynicism. In the late nineteenth century, when planning pioneer Ebenezer Howard first voiced his utopian vision of an alternative to the urban slums of his day, the Fabian News responded, “His plans would have been in time if they had been submitted to the Romans when they conquered Britain.”

Ebenezer Howard

Nonetheless, Howard went on to found the Garden City Association and build the leafy havens of Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City, where thousands escaped to from the urban poverty which plagued Victorian cities.

Howard believed that by marrying the virtues of the city, including good wages, opportunity and amusement, with the advantages of rural life, such as low rents, natural beauty and fresh air, everyone could enjoy a better standard of life.

However, the dormitory suburbs which followed in the wake of the New Towns Act were far from what Howard had imagined.

“The downsides of the rapid development and centralised planning that underpinned New Towns are all too evident,” admitted Communities Secretary Sajid Javid when he launched the APPG. “Dated, often identikit housing, infrastructure and town centres that, too often, look like everywhere and nowhere.

“That don’t just make these towns the butt of lazy jokes…but make it harder for them to be seen as truly aspirational and attract the investment they need to grow and thrive.”

Some new towns are making trying hard to reinvent themselves. Some, such as Crawley, are breaking down the original blocky zoning and the inner ring roads. We’re also seeing high quality and better design informing the development of Lightmoor Village in Telford.

However, the term ‘garden city’ is now most commonly associated with brochures for large developments built for private profits.

The new APPG has been established to highlight the growth opportunities, as well as the challenges, in Britain’s post-war new towns. Chaired by Lucy Allan, MP for Telford, the APPG will consider the successes and failures of existing new towns in order to learn from past mistakes and to help shape future government policy.

The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), which Howard helped found, is providing the secretariat for the APPG.

Kate Henderson, TCPA Chief Executive, said, “The New Towns programme was the most ambitious large-scale town-building programme ever undertaken in the UK, providing homes and jobs for over 2.8 million people. As a set of places, they exhibit a range of urban successes and failures, with some among the fastest growing communities in the UK and others the among the most deprived.

“With the government supporting a new programme of garden cities, towns and villages, the APPG will provide a highly influential, cross-party forum to learn the lessons – good and bad – of past new towns to help shape future policy.”

The government is already supporting 24 locally-led garden cities, towns and villages, ranging in size from 1,500 new homes to over 20,000, from Cornwall to Cumbria.

Some are being built on land where there are few or no houses. Others aim to provide transformational growth to existing settlements.

The Autumn Budget backed five new locally-led Garden Towns in places where demand is high, including a million new homes in the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor by 2050.

Driven by burgeoning demand, garden towns seem unstoppable. Howard believed that a new civilisation could be found by marrying the town and the country. Perhaps it still can, if the right lessons have been learned.

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