At the outset of the NUGC saga we were told that Garden City Principles would make everything wonderful. Few of us believed that the principles could be achieved. It seems we are not alone. The following blog by Jon Reeds of SmartgrowthUK provides an interesting commentary in the light of the Planning Inspectors verdict of the draft Uttlesford Local Plan (and its inclusion of three Garden Communities.)

Ebenezer Howard -v- Garden Communities

By Jon Reeds, SmartgrowthUK

For a long time now, I have had an uneasy relationship with the late Sir Ebenezer Howard. He was, without doubt, a remarkable man, whose ideas have spread around the world. He disproves Shakespeare’s belief about the evil that men do living after them, while the good is oft interred with their bones. Both Howard’s good ideas and his bad ones have survived him.

So there’s good news and bad news. Let’s get the bad out of the way first. Howard’s ideas on spatial development have given Britain, and other countries, a development paradigm for more than 100 years which could be characterised as low-density, car-dependent, greenfield sprawl. His garden cities morphed into a few new towns and vast numbers of garden suburbs which have squandered our scarce building land, trashed our countryside and left us hopelessly dependent on unsustainable transport.

And the good news? Howard was one of those figures whose work at the beginning of the 20th century led to the modern planning profession and planning system. For this he deserves great credit.

But there’s another positive angle to his legacy. Howard’s main preoccupation was never garden cities themselves or spatial planning. If you read Garden Cities of Tomorrow, it’s plain his main interest was communitarian economics and governance. Now I’m sure the world would be a better place if his ideas had been followed, but they haven’t secured very much traction. His admirers, however, continue to press them.

I was reminded of this by the inspectors’ letter to Uttlesford District Council, ripping apart its draft local plan as unsound chiefly owing to its support for three wretched ‘garden communities’.

The letter is worth a read for anyone fighting these destructive developments, but it’s the findings of the two inspectors on ‘Garden City Principles’ I found most illuminating.

These days it’s the Town and Country Planning Association Howard helped found that lays down the Principles on which, allegedly, the Government’s 50-odd garden communities are based.
1. Land value capture for the benefit of the community.
2. Strong vision, leadership and community engagement.
3. Community ownership of land and long-term stewardship of assets.

Valuable principles for any development I would have thought.
The two inspectors cited these principles, but cast serious doubt on the adherence of the proposed Uttlesford garden communities to them.
Now this is not some community group objecting to the inevitable trashing of its local environment that garden communities cause. It is two highly qualified and experienced planners appointed by the Government’s Planning Inspectorate to examine the local plan. They raised a whole range of issues.

‘All these matters cast some doubt as to whether these vital Garden Community Principles would be met in Uttlesford,’ they conclude.
And it means everyone objecting to garden communities throughout the land needs to ask whether their developers and land owners really have signed up to land value capture, community engagement, community ownership of the land and long-term stewardship of assets. I may be wrong, but I see little sign of it.

Of course, land owners and developers who see potential vast profits heading instead for communities will argue this is just one council naive enough to have insisted on the Principles. But Uttlesford is not alone in this and others have done likewise.

Nor can commercial interests run off to Whitehall and complain they’re being bullied. The Government’s own Garden Communities prospectus is quite clear on this: ‘All proposals must set out a clear vision for the quality of the community and how this can be maintained in the long-term, for instance by following Garden City principles,’ it says, and it provides no alternative solution. Thus both the Government’s own stated policy and its Planning Inspectorate are insisting on at least some of Howard’s communitarian principles.

So it’s time to closely examine the other 40-odd garden community plans and see if the land owners and developers are equally willing to see their profits diverted to communities by this admirable legacy of Sir Ebenezer Howard. We could start with the Wynyard proposal, dumped into the garden communities programme on the same day as the Uttlesford decision became public, presumably to divert attention. It’s a matter of principle.