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Garden cities for the 21st century

Matt Thomson
By Matt Thomson

CPRE’s head of planning Matt Thomson looks at the history of garden cities – and how they could be a blueprint for regenerating England’s market towns.

Towns have always been an integral part of rural England. As retail and service centres, they have traditionally acted as the economic hubs of the countryside, serving surrounding villages and farms, and supporting tourism. And, with the number of households in England projected to increase by a quarter in the next 20 years, rural towns will be expected to play a significant part in providing more homes.

The Government’s preferred solution seems to be for new towns to meet this need, apparently in addition to the housing numbers we’re already seeing imposed on our villages. Its ‘garden communities’ programme is already supporting 23 schemes, totalling 200,000 homes, and a new prospectus is offering to fund further proposals as ‘an opportunity to stimulate economic growth’. But in encouraging new towns, are we missing the chance to invest in those we already have?

‘Coherent communities on a human scale’

In 2012, CPRE’s then vice president, the geographer Nicholas Crane, suggested that despite ‘the rise of out-of-town and online shopping and the closure of over 500 livestock markets’, small towns were ‘the communities of the future’. He argued they could become ‘engines of innovation’, showing how an emphasis on local food, wellbeing and social collaboration can provide a model for urban living – but only if their growth was proportionate, allowing them to remain, as Nick put it, ‘single, coherent communities on a human scale’.

The Government’s prospectus could even support this revival; it suggests that garden communities might involve the ‘transformational development of an existing settlement’. There is no indication, however, that the programme will prioritise brownfield or regeneration projects – which will also have to jump through more hoops than will simply plonking development on a greenfield site. Indeed, the prospectus seems to be another example of the ‘garden’ soubriquet being applied to ever more random development proposals, which seem to lead to low-density, car-dependent, residential-led sprawl.

It’s worth remembering that the 1898 vision of Sir Ebenezer Howard, founder of the garden city movement, was of compact communities of 30,000 people on a site of 1,000 acres, with ‘the furthest removed inhabitant being within 600 yards’ of the edge of the centre. With today’s smaller households, that sort of concentration of people would require a housing density of around 80 dwellings per hectare – four times that generally proposed in the garden villages of today, but the same as our green and desirable Georgian squares.

Garden Cities for the 21st century

Depressingly, Howard’s name has become associated with the suburban reality of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities, rather than their inspirational masterplans. In their fervour to ensure the financial viability of their experiments, the garden city pioneers ended up building bigger homes for wealthier buyers – and it’s a travesty that the idea of ‘homes with gardens’ is being used to define new communities that will do nothing to address the present affordability crisis, but plenty to fuel land-hungry development.

As a schoolboy in Letchworth, I was taught that the ‘Garden’ part of the name arose from Howard’s idea of the city being set within a permanent agricultural belt, so that ‘the fresh delights of the country – field, hedgerow and woodland’ would be accessible to all. Howard said that if a community sprawled into this land, it would ‘for ever destroy its right to be called a Garden City’. He also intended his cities’ showpiece to be a central, circular garden of five acres, surrounded by a public park of 145 acres, for ‘ample recreation within very easy access of all the people’ – people he envisaged would be rehoused from slum housing, and have no need or desire for a private garden. For Howard, shared gardens were an essential part of using land wisely and building a sense of community.

With the whole basis of garden communities shrouded in myth and misconception, it’s time the concept was updated for the 21st century. The Town and Country Planning Association has made an admirable attempt, but its list of ‘principles’ includes ‘homes with gardens’, while failing to reference optimal densities or Green Belts. And that lack of clarity and discipline is allowing developers to fill the vacuum with garden community proposals such as West Tey in Essex – a 24,000- home behemoth that would swallow nine villages, but fail to address local concerns on employment, services, infrastructure and landscape.

While rejecting West Tey, one local group – CAUSE (Campaign Against Urban Sprawl in Essex) – is proposing an alternative: the expansion of settlements along an electrified Colchester-to-Clacton train line serving several employment centres. Lower infrastructure costs would also allow a higher proportion of affordable homes than West Tey could deliver. All over the country, there’s a feeling that the Government’s ill-defined initiative is encouraging developers to pursue the wrong homes in the wrong places. This is needlessly adversarial when CAUSE and other local campaigners have indicated they would welcome high-quality new settlements on a smaller scale, if they met strict and sustainable planning criteria.

The best of both worlds?

After World War II, CPRE supported new towns in principle, as long as they avoided good farmland and ‘areas of great scenic beauty’; had access to transport; and were self-contained communities (within permanent Green Belts) providing shops, jobs, schools, recreation and allotments. CPRE’s founder, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, had already established – in our 1926 manifesto – that new communities must be ‘finely planned and developed harmoniously’ within ‘the lie of the land.’

The New Towns Act 1946 was not intended to be at ‘the expense of re-beautifying and reconstructing the old towns’, according to the wartime planning minister, William Morrison. But it did raise a question Howard had asked half a century earlier: whether it might be better to adapt our industrial cities ‘to our newer and higher needs’ than to start again on ‘virgin soil’. He argued that once a couple of new garden cities were seen to have been successful, ‘the reconstruction of London must inevitably follow’, with the ‘wretched slums pulled down and replaced by magnificent streets, parks and allotments’.

CPRE certainly saw new towns as a last resort in 1946, citing the need to prioritise the ‘rehabilitation’ of urban areas, including the ‘many small market towns which are crying out for a new lease of life’. In 2016, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce report, The Northern Powerhouse: where do market towns fit in?, came to a similar conclusion, suggesting the decline of ‘community capital – the unique blend of human, social, built, natural and financial resources’ is behind an exodus of young people. The loss of those workers and consumers is, alongside the rise of out-of-town and online shopping, a major reason why more than one in 10 shops have stood empty for at least 12 months.

Homes in our high streets

Many are now arguing these empty spaces could be reused for affordable housing, to help entice first-time buyers back to town. And this needs to happen if existing towns are to play a major part in meeting our housing needs – something that 90% of MPs support, according to last year’s Homes on our High Streets report by the Federation of Master Builders. Its chief executive, Brian Berry, argued that using empty floors above shops alone could provide as many as 400,000 new homes, saying: ‘These sorts of properties would be ideal for young professionals, or young families just starting out, as they benefit from good transport links and are close to shops, bars and restaurants.’

Weeks later, The Times columnist Alice Thomson argued that as well as young people, ‘the elderly should be encouraged to downsize to accommodation in town centres. Both groups want what a bustling market town should offer: cafés, parks, hairdressers, markets selling local produce and leisure activities at reasonable prices in proximity to their homes.’

Logic might also suggest that every home provided in the centre is one that doesn’t have to be built on the edge – an argument that has support at the highest level of Government. But, while the Government has introduced a number of ‘carrots’ to encourage town centre renewal, it has failed to wield the stick against urban sprawl.

Unsurprisingly, the Labour Party’s retail adviser, Bill Grimsey, a butcher by trade, agreed that the Government must do better. His recent review town centres argued that ending out-of-town development can help bring unwanted central spaces back into use for houses and offices, supporting the burgeoning café culture that is transforming places like Altrincham. There, town centre vacancy rates have fallen from 25% to 10% since 2014, thanks to a central food hall that acts as a ‘massive footfall generator by creating a social space’, according to Cheshire East Council.

Back to the future

As Grimsey told the Government’s Communities Committee in 2018, local food represents the future, and past, of market towns: ‘Fresh food emporiums combine the experience of eating out with cooking and imparting knowledge. In the 1960s, people used to come and ask butchers about cuts of meat. I see that returning. With this generation’s concern about the environment, local produce will re-emerge.’

That certainly chimes with CPRE’s argument that successful market towns will help support the local food webs that, in turn, support our farms and rural growers.

Grimsey also argues that the inherent character of our market towns can entice people back from larger ‘clone towns’, citing the heritage-led regeneration of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, where a Victorian ironworks is now full of shops and eateries. These multifunctional hubs may offer a vital insight into the services that should be a prerequisite for new settlements. Above all, they highlight the potential of market towns as viable, sustainable and attractive areas for new housing.

We have the chance to create a virtuous circle that makes the most of existing infrastructure and wasted spaces, supports local food and heritage, and saves countryside. The choice between investing in these places or creating new ones could mean the difference between maintaining the life of the countryside or losing it forever.

This article, or a version of it, was originally published in CPRE’s award-winning magazine, Countryside Voices. You’ll have Countryside Voices sent to your door three times a year, as well as access to other benefits including discounts on attraction visits and countryside kit from major high street stores, when you join as a CPRE member. Join us now.

Morris men perform in full regalia
Morris dancers in Welwyn Garden City - but is the city really a good example of Ebenezer Howard's original, radical vision? Sasastro via

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The legacy of Ethel’s vision and determination lives on thanks to the continued efforts of the Friends of the Peak District, and she remains an inspiration to everyone within CPRE