Rowntree idealism lives on in new model village

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The Independent Online
A MODEL village built by Joseph Rowntree a century ago is the inspiration behind a pounds 35m scheme to create a blueprint for 21st-century urban living.

Joseph Rowntree's chocolate factories won no mention in Lord Rogers's withering report on life in Britain's cities last week, though New Earswick, built by Rowntree, offered thousands of his York workers an idyllic urban existence at a time when slum dwelling was often the norm.

A Rowntree man would return to his three-bedroomed home with living room and parlour, tend his own fruit trees and vegetable garden and watch his children play safely on an ample village green - all laid on for six shillings' rent per week. Today New Earswick is home to 1,000 people.

Rowntree's devotees at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have earmarked 53 acres of land for the project, at Osbaldwick on the city's eastern fringe, for the new village. York council is providing the land and the first residents could be moved in by 2001.

The Foundation has not employed architects for its new venture, though a pounds 68,000 design contract will be advertised. In social terms, the 500- home plan is as state of the art as Mr Rowntree ever got. He didn't have to contend with the culture of benefit dependency, unemployment and single- parent families which typify the more disastrous inner city housing estates. These are the social ills the Foundation despairs of, so it wants to socially engineer a mixed community, making some homes owner-occupied and others rented.

It sounds idealistic but the Foundation's housing operations director, Roland Crooke, insists no one is being "misty-eyed". "We can't create Utopias," he said. "We can't make people really, really nice about living with each other - but we can create the conditions. Social housing which is built on its own has an increasingly poor reputation, with whole communities monolithically dependent on housing benefit."

Behind the trim houses with their gardens and neat beech hedges, New Earswick is no Utopia today. It has had to live with unemployment and delinquent tearaways. A tenants' survey a few years ago showed only nine per cent of villagers attended council meetings and 88 per cent said they did not want to be more active.

But locals say crime is lower than on local housing estates because the emphasis is on people. A folk hall in the centre of the village has been home to a multitude of groups and shops have been kept on the estate by reducing their rents.

The same strengths characterise other factory model villages such as Saltaire, near Bradford, named after its creator Sir Titus Salt who moved his mohair and alpaca factory out to the River Aire near the Yorkshire Dales in 1850.

While New Earswick remains "dry", a legacy of Joseph Rowntree's Quaker beliefs, a pub is not out of the question in the new one, potential residents will be relieved to know.

"We are seeking views," said Mr Crooke. "There are already pubs and a church nearby but we would not rule either out."