It is clear that the housing crisis is having a desperate impact on British people’s lives. It is also clear that the next government will have to face an acute economic and environmental crisis. The current national response to these complex challenges won’t secure the lasting progress we need. Welfare benefit reform is driving a whole new set of housing needs and new patterns of migration, and it’s increasing inequality and social division. Our deregulated planning system with no strategic teeth is at a low ebb and the ideologies of ‘nudge theory’ and neoliberalism, although practically ineffective, still dominate the zeitgeist.
So how do we offer both hope and practical solutions to build the kind of sustainable places we need for the future? We can only meet the sustainable development test by delivering high quality zero carbon places which are social inclusive for all parts of society. The riots in Sweden show what happens when utopias are created only for the elite. We should open our eyes to the possibilities which the creation of new, and the regeneration of existing, communities can bring to our society in terms of skills and work, health and well-being.
Our first problem is one of framing the possibility of change. It is all too easy to forget the fantastic places we have delivered in our past when we have seen so much, particularly high rise social housing, which has failed. The UK has an unprecedented record in building garden cities and new towns. Indeed, our garden cities provide some of the most desirable places to live in the country.
Learning from the past
The radical nature of the garden city movement remains of critical relevance to the 21st century. Garden cities are inclusive places, creating new jobs and sustainable lifestyles. Garden cities are born of a strong vision to create beautiful places where “the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination,” as Ebernezer Howard wrote in 1898. They were the physical expression of aspiring towards a just and fair society.
New communities offer a powerful opportunity to deliver much needed housing in a holistic and comprehensively planned way, rather than through piecemeal development. They deliver more housing with potentially less environmental impact. They also present a significant opportunity to embed community governance structures, create jobs, and promote low carbon living in high quality, sustainable and inclusive places. These places need to pay for themselves by the capturing and reinvesting rising land and house prices. For this we need to use development corporations which can secure assets for the long term benefit of the community.
In the past, significant government backing allowed a record level of development, but left open questions about democratic accountability and the voice of local people in the future of their communities. We must find new models which place communities and councils at the heart of the process.
The truly Big Society
Past generations of new communities had a powerful sense of idealism and enthusiasm. There are no better examples of the Big Society than the arts and leisure associations, as well as practical services, run by the early residents of the garden cities and new towns.
The lessons from garden cities and new towns are not new, but they need to be restated and brought together in the new and radically changed political context, in which there has been a fundamental shift from the central and regional level, to the local and neighbourhood level. Looking back to the past will help to ensure that lessons in how to plan attractive and resilient communities are not lost and the failures are not repeated.
A new generation of locally led, comprehensively planned communities may be overdue, but we must consider the desperate needs of many communities in low demand areas for renewal. This can’t just be about new communities in the south east. Garden city principles can be applied at a range of scales, including suburbs and inner city neighbourhoods as well as to larger new communities. Creating new garden cities can provide the opportunity and the economies of scale necessary to truly fulfill the ambitions of sustainable development. This means creating healthy and vibrant communities with multiple benefits, including social housing, zero carbon design, low carbon energy networks, sustainable transport, local food sourcing and access to nature.
The garden cities arose from a sense of idealism and enthusiasm, pioneering new ways of living. It is this spirit of co-operation and innovation that should be re-captured. To enable it to happen, we need a radical culture change which helps communities, local authorities, developers and central government to work together to build villages, towns and cities for the future. We must forge a new relationship between people and planning and find ways to combine the best of what we have achieved in the past, to meet the modern challenge of creating sustainable, democratic communities which truly place local people at the centre.
Hugh Ellis is the chief planner, TCPA. This essay is taken from a forthcoming collection titled Green social democracy: better homes in better places.