A battle has broken out between town and country over the future of planning. The government is trying to defuse the row by bringing back garden cities: planned communities designed to create a ‘joyous union’ between town and country.
Yesterday the Prime Minister said new towns are back on Britain’s planning agenda. Evoking the green and pleasant spaces of Welwyn and Letchworth, David Cameron pledged these garden cities will provide the model for future housing development.
Garden cities created the blueprint for how many of us live today: they were the template for modern suburbia. While loved by the people who live there, the tree-lined quiet comforts of the suburbs are often sneered at by people who don’t. For a certain kind of snob, ‘suburban’ means small-minded and dull.
Yet the garden cities were genuinely revolutionary. By bringing town and country together in harmoniously planned communities, Garden city pioneer Ebeneezer Howard and his disciples wanted to create ‘a new hope, a new life, a new civilisation’ (To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, 1898).
We face big questions about how we live together on our increasingly crowded island. It’s good news that the government is looking to the garden city movement for inspiration (and learning lessons from the dreary legacy of 1960s new towns).
However, Britain continues to be hamstrung by Planning Panic (which Cameron calls ‘a loss of nerve’ on planning): every new green-field development, from a sprinkling of houses on the edge of a village to vital infrastructure projects like HS2 or Boris Island, is automatically viewed as ‘a bad thing’.
The coalition is trying to address planning inertia with its National Planning Policy Framework: a wholesale attempt to simplify 60 years of planning laws. Unsurprisingly, the reform has met a massive wall of resistance from the Daily Telegraph (Hands Off Our Land), the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the RSPB and the National Trust. Today’s Daily Mail gave the Prime Minister’s proposals a shrill greeting: New towns to ‘disfigure’ UK: Fury over move to ditch 60 years of planning law in bid to construct new garden cities
I am as anxious as anyone to protect and preserve our ridiculously beautiful and distinctive countryside. But we need to find a balance between preservation and development. I believe the garden cities give us valuable ideas about how we can find this balance, and create great places to live and work. I will be launching a new blog on this topic in the the next weeks.