The proposed "Cities of Mercia, Anglia and Kent" would consist of clusters of new towns sited along railways and main roads in Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire and eastern Kent, and house up to two million people.
Sir Peter Hall, a leading member of the Government's urban taskforce and chairman of the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), announced the scheme, which is based on Sir Ebenezer Howard's 100-year-old concept of garden cities. Sir Peter said he wanted to create three clusters of up to 20 garden cities, each with a population of 25,000 to 30,000, connected by good rail and road links.
For example, the city of Mercia would be sited between Rugby, Corby and Milton Keynes and involve 11 new settlements, one close to the childhood home of Diana, Princess of Wales, at Althorp, Northamptonshire, which would be called Diana. The proposals are contained in a book, Sociable Cities: The Legacy of Ebenezer Howard.
However, the scheme is simply a proposal at the moment. A spokesman for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, said: "It is a contribution to the debate on housing and such a proposal would be considered in the respective regions. The regions would have to measure it against national policy, which is to develop urban sites for the greater part of new housing."
The three proposed cities, 50 to 90 miles from London, would avoid the urban sprawl which is swamping country towns, claimed Sir Peter. But the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) and the Countryside Alliance warned that Sir Peter's plans would simply encourage builders to swallow up ever greater areas of countryside with bland and soulless estate developments dominated by the car.
Tony Burton, assistant director of the CPRE, said: "We are concerned that this will distract attention from the over-riding priority to make better use of land within existing towns and cities and will undermine the move towards urban renewal."
Bruce Macpherson, of the Countryside Alliance, added: "We are not opposed in principle to greenfield development, but this plan would seem to be excessive, particularly when there are many sites in towns and cities which could be conveniently filled by new properties.
"Any new development in the countryside must take into account the existing rural communities and their needs and not leave them overwhelmed by people who are outsiders to the area."
Sir Peter responded: "I deeply regret that these proposals may be causing alarm, but that is because they are being misunderstood and misrepresented. On the contrary, we are convinced that our new city clusters are the most sustainable solution to the problem of planning in Britain today: how to house the forecast 1.44 million new households in South-east England over the next 20 years."
An estimated 4.4 million new households are forecast in England between 1991 and 2016 because people are living longer and in smaller family units.
Ebenezer howard's vision
IT IS 100 years ago this month that Sir Ebenezer Howard, founder of the garden city movement, wrote Tomorrow, A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. It was republished four years later with the more accessible title: Garden Cities of To-Morrow. The world's first garden city was launched in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, in 1903. Half a century later, Sir Ebenezer had spawned an Act of Parliament and the designation of 20 new towns in Britain.
At the time he wrote, Britain's cities were full to overcrowding with people who had fled from 20 years of agricultural recession. Sir Ebenezer's idea was to reverse the flow of migration, uniting town and country in new, privately funded developments which would attract industry. He envisaged clustering new towns into "social cities" interlaced by farmland where farmers might work close to their markets.
Other garden cities include Harlow, Hemel Hempstead, Milton Keynes (left), Crawley, Corby (right), Basildon, and Bracknell. They were supposed to be self-contained and sustainable, but became commuter bases almost as soon as they were built.