George Osborne’s garden city: why the chancellor should look to history

Following George Osborne's announcement of a plan to build a new 'garden city' in Kent, author and former English Heritage assessor Sarah Rutherford looks at the influence of such communities in the UK's history

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A new ‘garden city’ with 15,000 homes is set to be built at Ebbsfleet in Kent, George Osborne announced earlier this week. If the chancellor is serious about the construction of such a planned community, he should examine the work of the guru who pioneered the concept – Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928).

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Appalled at the squalid state of late Victorian cities, Howard crystalised ideas of the age into his radical vision for a garden city in his 1898 book Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. The principles that Howard set out for designing decent towns and cities still hold, and could work at Ebbsfleet to achieve a strong, vibrant community.

Howard’s concept of ‘garden city’ was far more than just an idea for decent houses in pleasant, leafy surroundings, however. He suggested the novelty of carefully planned and designed ‘zoned’ areas for housing, industry, open space and civic centres with shops – a setup that was to go on to become the conventional approach.

But his masterstroke came in his suggestions for the management of garden cities, specifically the idea that they should be modelled as co-operatives with residents owning shares and having a direct say in how they were run, in order to encourage a true social mix. This would lead, as Howard put it, to a “higher and better form of industrial life”.

Howard was persuasive enough to raise funds from private shareholders and founded the first garden city in 1903 as the Garden City Pioneer Company Limited at Letchworth, Hertfordshire. This was not developed closely enough to his principles, and in the 1920s he reprised the concept at nearby Welwyn Garden City, in which he was more closely involved.

These remained the only two true garden cities in England, although the concept was hugely influential and developed nationally after the Second World War into the government’s extensive New Town programme.

The concept quickly went international. Hertfordshire became the mecca for those planning new towns and cities, and visitors came from around the world to see and learn. Letchworth and Welwyn can, therefore, be seen to have offspring in most continents including Canberra,  the capital city of Australia, and New Delhi.

Garden cities did have their drawbacks, however. Their low-rise, low-density nature meant that they used large amounts of land, and critics accused them of descending into soulless ‘urban sprawl’. Good transport links to nearby cities also led some to suggest that they encouraged commuting, resulting in a string of dead ‘dormitory’ towns.

So, what is the answer for Ebbsfleet? I believe they should take the key principles of Howard’s concept and adapt them for today. They still hold good.

Howard’s vision was precise: to create an attractive and sustainable town for healthy living with industry for its residents, of a size for a full social life but not larger. It’s a tall order but, with drive and vision, it is not impossible in 21st-century Britain.

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Dr Sarah Rutherford is the author of Garden Cities, a new titles in the relaunched Shire Library series. Find out more at www.shirebooks.co.uk