The notion of the garden city, as conceived by Ebenezer Howard and first brought to fruition in Letchworth, was to provide an alternative to the squalor and overcrowding of the industrialised Victorian metropolis. Britain may no longer be so blighted by slums as it was a century ago, but with urban dwellers living more closely packed together than ever, the idea of a place with “the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country” has lost none of its appeal.
Sure enough, all three political parties have pledged their support for a new wave of garden cities to follow not only Letchworth and Welwyn but also post-war new towns such as Milton Keynes and Harlow. The Prime Minister has talked enthusiastically of “characterful houses, not just car-dominated concrete grids”. Earlier this year, Nick Clegg went so far as to single out an “arc” of suitable locations from Oxfordshire to Warwickshire. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband’s promised Rebuilding Britain Commission will, among other things, also consider appropriate sites for new urban developments.
There is no doubt that Britain needs to build, and on a grand scale. We currently add approximately 100,000 new homes each year, but demand is running nearer 250,000. The result is poor living conditions and increasingly unaffordable prices. The trouble with the Government’s vaunted Help to Buy scheme is that, while it may help counteract banks’ post-crisis unwillingness to lend, without a concomitant expansion of our restricted housing stock it will merely inflate the property-price bubble still further.
New construction is not the only solution. There are plenty of brownfield sites to be redeveloped and empty urban properties to be filled. But neither will be sufficient alone. Nor, indeed, will the steady sprawl of suburbia. The shortfall between demand and supply has built up over too many years; and with the number of households expected to increase by another fifth over the next two decades, the problem will only get worse. The think-tank Policy Exchange estimated this week that Britain needs another 1.5 million new homes by 2020. Business as usual will not do. Garden cities, with their promise of the best of both worlds, are the obvious answer.
How to turn the rhetoric into reality, though? It is more than 18 months since the Prime Minister’s warm words, and a year since an equally ringing endorsement from the planning minister, Nick Boles. But although there is one new garden city on the stocks – in Lanarkshire – that hardly constitutes the kind of progress such high-profile political support might have suggested.
Money is always a factor. But the Nimby outrage at Mr Boles’ suggestion that perhaps 12 per cent of Britain should be built upon, rather than the current 10 per cent, is the key. Since then, both he and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles have stressed that garden cities will not be “imposed”. Meanwhile, hints of financial backing have receded; and the ardour of the Prime Minister, facing a backlash over everything from HS2 to Heathrow expansion, has markedly cooled.
But Britain cannot do without more housing. No amount of short-sighted, self-interested opposition can change that. Letchworth and Welwyn are testament to the visionary Ebenezer Howard. Would we might be so brave again.