Nick Clegg is not the first to propose new towns to solve a housing crisis. But until they have jobs and character, they’ll only be dormitories of big cities
"It’s time to think big,” says Nick Clegg. Big, that is, about the number of new homes we need to build in Britain. In a speech given yesterday to the National House-Building Council, the Deputy Prime Minister was at pains to stress that “we’re already building 100,000 fewer homes than we need each year. Over the next decade, each year, the UK is going to grow by around 230,000 households. Last year we managed to complete 117,000, just over half.
“Unless we take more radical action,” he continued, “we will see more and more small communities wither, our big cities will become ever more congested as we continue to pile on top of each other, and the lack of supply will push prices and rents so high that unless you or your parents are very rich living in your dream home is going to be a pipe dream.”
So how do we “think big”? By building a new generation of garden cities and suburbs for the 21st century, said Mr Clegg, conjuring visions of fresh air, patches of lawn, a place to park the cars, and, of course, for the detached cottage itself, “drawing on the best of British architecture and design”. A chance, then, for those under 35 and without rich parents to buy a home of their own, with a kick-start from a new government tax initiative allowing local authorities to borrow against future business rate revenues to help them get building. Governments, however, come and go as, it seems, do the latest housing initiatives and ministers.
The garden city movement, nurtured at the beginning of the 20th century by Ebenezer Howard, an Esperanto-speaking social reformer born in the teeming City of London (LSE: CIN.L - news) , gave us Letchworth the first of the genus in 1903, followed by Welwyn Garden City and, by global extension, Canberra, Brasilia and the latest new towns around Shanghai.
Adopted by central government, garden city thinking spawned well-meant post-war new towns: Basildon and Crawley to the south, Washington and Peterlee up north, Cumbernauld north of the border. The last, and possibly the most successful, of these was Milton Keynes, announced in 1967.
Mrs Thatcher, however, put an end to the new towns council housing, too and since then, under New Labour and Coalition governments, we are supposed to have enjoyed an “urban renaissance”, along with eco-towns, the Thames Gateway and the positively insane Pathfinder project, whereby streets of perfectly good 19th-century homes in Liverpool and Manchester (Other OTC: MNCSQ.PK - news) have been demolished for no discernible reason.
One way or another, all of these initiatives have been failures: New Labour’s “urban renaissance” descended, year-by-year, into a new Dark Age of rampant, uncivil property development; while eco-towns a New Labour joke were too environmentally unfriendly to win friends except among the foxiest property speculators.
The idea of 21st-century garden cities might sound appealing a government-backed quintessence of rus in urbe (or urbe in rus) planning yet the whole point of garden cities is that they were small. Far from wanting us to think big, Ebenezer Howard imagined his ideal new cities supporting populations of no more than 30,000. Given over in almost equal proportions to industry, agriculture and residential areas, these would be small enough to walk to work in and, wherever possible, self-sufficient.
Given that, according to Mr Clegg, there will be 2.3 million new households over the next 10 years, an increase in population of perhaps five million people, we will need more than 150 new garden cities or 10 new cities, with or without gardens, the size of Liverpool or Manchester. Put this way, the latest government housing initiative seems absurd, its recommendations defied by simple mathematics.
In reality, many of these future households will take root in existing towns and cities, while most people, however poor, will gravitate to London and the South East a fact that, by itself, highlights one of the greatest difficulties of building new garden cities. Old or new, towns are shaped first and foremost by their economies, by trade and manufacturing, by what they do. There is absolutely no point in building new towns if their primary purpose is to meet a housing shortage. Households need jobs, and a city is built around these.
Imagine if a garden city had been decreed close to Swindon in the 1820s. Few would have been tempted to settle there. But when the Great Western Railway opened its famous works in 1841, people flocked there to find jobs; this small market town grew, and continues to thrive, because it built locomotives, just as Barrow-in-Furness has long spelt submarines, Northampton shoes, Nottingham lace and Melton Mowbray pork pies, while London has long been a world-in-a-city, a New Rome, founded, of course, by the Romans themselves.
Through these economic activities, British towns gained their special characters. Neither the garden cities nor new towns have matched them, even though Ebenezer Howard adopted the core ideas underpinning them, on a tide of soapsuds and a rush of chocolate, from idealistic 19th-century industrial “villages” notably, Port Sunlight, built by the Lever Brothers; Bourneville, by George Cadbury; and New Earswick, by Joseph Rowntree.
Letchworth was better known for smocks and calisthenics, its open-air school for theosophical meditation, and for its first pub, The Skittles, where alcohol was prohibited, than for its industry. Walter Wilkinson, the Punch satirist, was moved to verse:
Now what did they want with a milk-and-water pub
When milk shops they were rich in?
Come on, boss! Let’s go and have a drink!
We can get one down in ’Itchin.
If garden cities were seen as arty-crafty, middle class, and the antithesis of heavy-duty manufacturing towns such as Crewe and Swindon, the new towns were a fanfare for the common man, woman and booming baby. Even then, culture was imposed on them from above by well-meaning architects, planners and mandarins.
What could have been more agreeable than to have watched Sir Kenneth Clark, garbed in a beautifully bespoke suit, unveil Henry Moore’s Harlow Family Group in the town of that name one day in 1956? Why, just eight years earlier, Lewis Silkin, Clem Attlee’s minister of town and country planning, had told local people shortly before work began elsewhere in Essex: “Basildon will become a city which people from all over the world will want to visit.”
Perhaps it is; and yet, for the most part, garden cities and new towns have become dormitory suburbs of London. Milton Keynes might boast that over half of those who work there commute locally, yet very many rush up to town meaning London by train each day.
It seems somehow significant that far away, across the South Atlantic and over the distant red planalto central of Brazil, politicians and civil servants are always first in the queue at the airport to join Friday evening flights from Brasilia, the new federal capital with its garden city plan inaugurated in 1960, to the sheer exuberance of Rio de Janeiro, a seaside city founded 400 years earlier, ever more crowded and open to the world.
No one doubts that we need new homes in Britain yet, for all their theoretical appeal, garden cities and their progeny are not the answer. We need to create or attract new industry, new jobs up and down the country and wrap new homes around them. Then, new towns and cities with a purpose, a culture and an identity will emerge, offering a genuine and truly viable alternative to our hard-pressed old towns and old cities that, meanwhile, we will continue to stretch, patch and grudgingly nurture.