New garden city at Ebbsfleet is thin veil over Osborne’s insufficient housing policy

Welwyn Garden City: self-sufficient utopia or dormitory town? Urban Grammar, CC BY-NC-SA

If you build it, they will come. They will come because of its proximity to London – even if it now exists “only as a flying bishop, a large station, a dream horse and the future”, as Ebbsfleet was described back in November 2010. But will a new garden city there be a success?

Ebbsfleet’s future has been thrust into the limelight, having featured in George Osborne’s 2014 budget. It is to be the first planned English garden city since the founding of Welwyn Garden City in 1920. The budget proposes that Ebbsfleet may be the beginning of a future wave of garden cities, with a government published prospectus on their development due next month.

In light of this, we should revisit the garden city’s origins to understand its social principles and to better assess its reuse in current debates as a model for building new communities.

Garden cities of tomorrow

The garden city takes its name from Ebenezer Howard’s book, popularly known in editions published after 1902 as “Garden Cities of To-morrow”. Howard’s book and campaigning inspired the development of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, both in Hertfordshire. These developments attempted to reconcile the best of urban and rural qualities.

In theory at least they allowed housing densities that reflected those of cities, but were punctuated by private and common garden areas. Their populations and businesses were to be connected to other cities via the rail network and were protected by a green belt, which opened up the countryside to residents, before this was a common planning feature. One way of thinking about garden cities is that they looked and felt like the country, but had the infrastructure of small cities.

Although Letchworth and Welwyn were the only sites built that sufficiently corresponded to Howard’s ideals, they have shaped the subsequent progression of 20th-century suburban developments throughout England. They have done so mainly because of their bucolic aesthetic, conjuring images of life in the Home Counties that echo with the cultural scripts of English Conservatism. Indeed, it is the prioritisation of the architectural design of garden cities over the economic, political and social bases of Howard’s ideals that explains the re-emergence of the term in current policy debates.

Howard’s book in its earliest 1898 edition was “To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Reform”. Through the garden city, Howard sought to establish a reforming system of land ownership and estate management along co-operative principles, according to which the municipal land was owned by the residents collectively, and in perpetuity. Agriculturally and economically, the garden city was to be self-sustaining, largely serving its population’s food and employment needs.

In Howard’s ideal, one garden city would be connected to other garden cities of equivalent sizes and a slightly larger central city through the rail network. This is a far cry from the over-riding function of the dormitory town that Welwyn would become and that is clearly assumed in the plans for Ebbsfleet, as slim as they are at this stage.

True meanings lost

Howard offered a utopian model to counteract the inner-city overcrowding that plagued the Victorian city. Osborne’s ventriloquism uses the garden city instead to feed the dystopian logic of the London housing market and further entrench its economic dominance over the rest of the country. Oh, and it will also help to protect the investors in a new Paramount Pictures theme park nearby.

By adopting Howard’s terminology for his Ebbsfleet proposals, the chancellor presents a picture postcard version of the “garden city”, all the while eliding its political and social meanings. In reality, this is a thin veil over his rather prosaic and insufficient house-building policy.

This tactic is paralleled by the shadow chancellor’s announcement last November that an incoming Labour government would re-activate the New Towns tradition of building. By this, Ed Balls sought to evoke a legacy of state-planning that has its origins in the Attlee administration’s New Towns Act of 1946.

This raiding of the past in search of political times where today’s major parties can draw comfort (another example is Osborne’s contemporary policy of “Help to Buy” evoking the Thatcher administration’s “Right to Buy”) exemplifies the lack of creativity – and weakness – of contemporary political debate.

A new wave of garden cities across the UK is certainly worth considering, but we must at least have a full debate about their location – must they all be located in the south of England? And we really should revisit the social ideas behind the original garden cities, as well as assessing their aesthetic merits. Whatever you think of the eventual architecture, Howard’s plans unsettled orthodoxy about how we should build – and it is this aspect of the garden cities we should aspire to emulate.

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