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Garden cities need community ownership

philip-ross-franceGarden cities are back on the political and social agenda. Barely a day goes past without Boris Johnson, Nick Clegg, David Cameron or Ed Miliband talking about them. Lord Wolfson has got in on the act by launching a competition to build a new garden city in England. The prize of £250,000 is enough to properly kickstart a new social garden city movement.

We are in an interesting place as there is general political consensus around the need to build new towns and settlements to address the housing and population growth. The argument that new homes are desperately needed in the country is being won and it is becoming clear that in-fill and bolt-on estates are not going to be enough to deal with the growing and backlog demand for homes.

According to a recent report published by the Building and Social Housing Federation (BSHF), the population of England is growing. In 2001 it was 49m and in 2011 it was 53m. This is accompanied by the growth in the number of households from 20.5 million to 22.1 million, an increase of 158,000 households per year. This growth is projected to accelerate, reaching 24.3 million households by 2021, an increase of 221,000 households per year. We need more homes to deal with a chronic backlog of housebuilding and this predicted growth. The future homes commission has called for 300,000 extra homes to be built every year in a ‘housing revolution’ and this concurs with the BSHF and the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA).

So with the need for new homes not in dispute, the discussion is now moving to where and how, and indisputably the suggestion that new garden cities can be built sounds softer on the ear than new towns or estates. But what is a garden city?

Some may think of it as just a new town with privet hedges but that is not our definition.

A recent meeting debated ‘building real garden cities with community ownership’. In attendance was Maurice Glasman, a strong advocate for community land trusts, Kate Henderson, the chief executive of the TCPA, Steve Wyler, chief executive of Locality, Pat Conaty, author of the ‘Resilience Imperative’ and co-ordinator of last year’s conference on building garden cities (the report from the conference came out in December), and myself, former mayor of Letchworth Garden City and author of the pamphlet ‘21st century garden cities of tomorrow’, and it was chaired by Patricia Nevins from the New Garden City Movement.

The meeting heard how garden cities had been originally established as social projects which aimed to bring planning and architectural practise together (combining the best of town and country) but also, in a co-operative theme, to capture the rising land value for the good of the local community, not the crown or absent landlords. The theme of collective ownership is a strong part of the garden city ideal, is supported by the TCPA and is one of the 12 principles in our pamphlet.

The founder of the garden city movement Ebenezer Howard believed that, as investment went into the new town and its infrastructure, the land values would subsequently increase. He called this the ‘unearned increment’ and instead of this going to absent landlords and speculative investors he was adamant that this should be captured for the local community and their benefit in perpetuity.

This may all sound idealistic until you look at Letchworth and see that he was right. The company he founded to control the town still exists (though in one of many new forms over the last 110 years). Today it controls assets worth £127m and makes an annual charitable spend of £7.5m. Not bad for a town of only 35,000 people. This is wealth that would always have been there, but without the Trust it would have probably been owned by faceless hedge fund, pension fund or foreign investors, the classic detached landlord. It would not have stayed in the town.

Milton Keynes, though not a garden city, still adopted the principle of endowing the new town with assets. These assets were worth £20m in 1991 (and are now worth £84m) and 5,000 acres are controlled by a trust. They generate revenue which pays for the upkeep of the parks and green spaces (about 25% of the city) in perpetuity so it doesn’t have to compete with the local council for funding.

Community ownership does work. Garden cities are not to be places of charity and paternalism but places of citizenship and empowerment.

With community ownership in the form of a community land trust or community land bank this can be done and they will foster participation in both the planning, development and governance of the city. Such that people will call themselves citizens of the garden city, an appellation derived through a sense of place or ownership. It is governance, ownership and other issues that our tried- and-tested 12 principles focus on to define a real garden city. In Scotland, they are ahead of us with plans for a co-operative settlement – Owenstown – taking shape.

The challenge ahead is to build and maintain a strong alliance between the resurgent commons movement which is focusing on shared and common land ownership and the garden city movement. There is so much in common.

One step towards this occurred in December when Co-operatives UK published a report entitled ‘Common sense : Co-operative place making and the capturing of land value for 21st century garden cities’. It is a series of contributions from varying authors following a conference on this theme in Letchworth last year. This – and our pamphlet – should both make necessary reading for all entrants to the Wolfson competition on garden cities.

The winning entrant should combine the best of town and country but be about more than sleek urban design, green space and environmental sustainability. These are parts of the picture but not all. It needs to also be socially and economically sustainable, providing long time affordable homes and capturing the prosperity from the value of the land in perpetuity for good of the community.

I hope that all entrants will embrace the real ethos of a garden city to deliver the special ingredients that can turn houses, offices and factories into strong communities.

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