Garden cities sound classless and lovely, but if they’re just an excuse to concrete over England, why bother with them?

George Osborne has promised £200m of investment to make Ebbsfleet work


How to solve our housing crisis? Politicians love a soundbite, and what sounds more gorgeous and user-friendly than the promise of a modern “garden city”? It conjures up visions of verdant pedestrian-friendly communal walkways, low-rise housing clustered in varying sizes around blooming gardens, a litter-free zone where crime is non-existent, a place where people know their neighbours. I can hear you sniggering, because that kind of housing remains a nostalgic dream.

Early 20th-century garden cities such as Welwyn and Letchworth were experiments in social engineering: terraced houses, semi-detached units and larger homes sat side by side, sharing the same access and gardens. No resident lived more than 15 minutes from transport, shops, schools, libraries and community services such as libraries and doctors. Now the Tories want to resurrect that utopian dream on brownfield sites and abandoned land.

In a grand gesture, George Osborne has announced that a new garden city of 15,000 homes will be built at Ebbsfleet, Kent, which currently consists of a new, underused international railway station, a football club, and some disused quarries. The main attraction of Ebbsfleet is its proximity to central London – just 18 minutes on the high-speed train to St Pancras – and the train, like those early garden cities, is clean, quiet and sleek.

Ironically, the original houses built for workers in Welwyn and Letchworth are now highly desirable and fought over by the middle classes, keen to live in such lovely surroundings. Since the Second Worl War, we’ve messed up mass housing. Tower blocks – one drastic solution to overcrowding – led to complaints of isolation and lack of security. Low-level housing too often consisted of identical units spewed out over large sites. Don’t tell me that Stevenage, Harlow, Peterlee, Thamesmead or Milton Keynes stand the test of time. They might have housed private and council tenants, but there the comparison with the original dream ends.

As public funding ran out, we skimped on materials, cut corners on design, left out the landscaping and gave everyone versions of dinky boxes, Boxes so small that most furniture doesn’t fit. Garages too small for cars. Gardens like hankies. Everyone travelled by car, and soon these cities were ghost towns during the day. Single people marooned, kids forbidden to kick balls about. Community activities zero.

George Osborne has promised £200m of investment to make Ebbsfleet work, via a development corporation. The funding will pay for schools, roads and parks. But will this result in a new town that has a sense of place, a unique character, somewhere we want to visit, hang out in? Look at the Isle of Dogs, one of Maggie’s Enterprise Zones. There’s mixed housing, but it remains a characterless neighbourhood. The only bits worth visiting are the old pubs and the waterfront. The other week I walked along the Thames from Rainham to Purfleet. The council housing is horrible, the public spaces completely unloved. Look at the private development around the Thames Barrier – totally second rate. What garden cities don’t need is a gang of builder-developers putting up 15,000 boxes which all look the same, somewhere none of the Cabinet would ever dream of living.

Ebbsfleet needs a genius master planner, someone with vision who will first build monuments, fountains, parks and places that pull the community together. Wayne Hemingway crossed with Piers Gough. The housing needs to grow organically around these key elements. Otherwise we’re just concreting over another bit of England, and creating a place to sit inside watching telly and doing drugs. Personally, I’d rather look at a disused quarry.

Harry easily passes the half‑time test

I don’t know why some sneaks have been to previews of Harry Hill’s X Factor musical, I Can’t Sing!, and come out sneering. The night I went, the audience was having a fantastic time. Without giving away too much of the story – well, you know it anyway – this is a modern version of the medieval passion play. Instead of Jesus we have a cute boy playing Simon as a 10-year-old with very high-waisted short trousers. Simon is God, Cheryl Cole the Virgin Mary and a rackety Louis Walsh plays St Peter.

Sure, it might be a bit clunky in places, and not all the jokes work, but it passed my ruthless exit strategy. If I’m fed up, I leave at the interval. Happily, I was able to tell Harry Hill over a half-time beer that I was definitely staying for the second half, in which he manages to combine such disparate elements as Wagner and fully grown altar boys. What’s really honourable about Harry is that he doesn’t aim low. He’s got big, surreal ideas, and the chance of failure is high. Yet somehow, it works, like all great English extravaganzas from Monty Python to Fawlty Towers (unlike the cynical The Book of Mormon, which failed my half-time test).

They tweet me here – they tweet me there

Why do we get so worked up about CCTV cameras and loss of privacy? I only ask because I keep getting reminded that in the age of Twitter and mobile phones, no one can escape being monitored by fellow human beings 24/7. We might be paranoid about who is reading our texts and emails, but aren’t we guilty of spying on each other?

I admit I’m hard to miss, but last week, someone actually tweeted that I’d put my toiletries in “a manky Tesco freezer bag” at Belfast airport. Another spy pointed out they’d seen me on a train and my hair needed a wash. The students who saw me walk past their college windows in Galashiels passed on my whereabouts. Someone else clocked me in Waitrose. The result is that now I smile a lot more in public (looking a bit like a demented loon) because otherwise I will be reprimanded on Twitter for looking old and grumpy.

Girl Guides for the 21st century – logo included

 In the Budget, George Osborne announced the Treasury would be giving £10m to support Scouts, Guides, cadets and St John Ambulance. Scouts and Guides are places where young people can do fun things with people of their own age. The next step, youth clubs, is the start of looking moody and hoping to get shagged – at least it was for me. As a lanky inner-city kid, I loved the Brownies and went on to the Guides, collecting badges for tying knots, cooking and map reading. The only downside was camping in Epping Forest – horribly dank and cold, even if it was a great adventure.

Now the Guides are awarding a new badge for “body image”, to encourage girls to develop healthier attitudes towards diet and appearance. Their study found that one in five primary school girls has been on diets and nine out of 10 older girls think that appearance is judged more important than ability. The “free being me” badge is awarded to girls who have been trained to talk to their peers about their bodies and healthy attitudes, to try to counter morbid and damaging self-criticism.

The Guides are certainly updating their image: now there are badges for circus skills and party planning. While I welcome the new badge, sponsored by Dove – which has being doing work in schools about body image for years – I wish it hadn’t stuck its logo on it. Guiding should be a rewarding and character-building experience for the young, free from commercial interference. Does everything in our society need a logo?

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