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charles

The Daily Telegraph this morning suggests an internal coalition battle over “garden cities”. The general message being that the Lib Dems are open and keen on establishing them while the Conservatives are secretive and hesitant.

The report says:

David Cameron must be “honest and upfront” about the Government’s plans to build two new garden cities in Kent and Buckinghamshire, Nick Clegg has said.

The Deputy Prime Minister says that there is “no point hiding” the facts as he insists that a report into the viability of building large new settlements to alleviate Britain’s housing crisis will be published by the Coalition.

In an article for the Telegraph Mr Clegg says:

We cannot make the mistakes of past governments and sit on our hands while a whole generation of people are squeezed out of the housing market. It is our duty to change the story. We must bring decades of indecision and stagnant political will to an end.

That is why I am a strong advocate of garden cities, where there is clear local support and private sector appetite. In 2011, our housing strategy committed us to publishing a prospectus for new garden cities and that is exactly what we’ll do.

By contrast on Friday in Parliament the following Written Answer was given:

Mrs Cheryl Gillan:  (Chesham and Amersham) To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, which sites in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire are being considered for the development of large communities or garden cities.  [182966]

Mr Kris Hopkins: “My department has absolutely no plans to impose new towns on any part of the country. For the avoidance of doubt, I would add that a recent press report, implying there is some secret government plan to impose such developments, is not true; nor am I aware of any report which was supposed to have been published by the government but which has been suppressed.

As I have previously made clear in my answers of 25 November 2013, Official Report, Column 84-5W, and 4 December 2013, Official Report, Column 744W, the Coalition Government has scrapped top-down Whitehall planning. This has included ending the last Government’s flawed eco-towns programme. This approach reflects commitments made in both Coalition parties general election manifestos and in the Coalition Agreement. Indeed, I would note that both Coalition party leaders criticised the last Administrations top-down, eco-town programme when in Opposition.

Instead, the Governments policy is to support communities with their ambitions to deliver large scale local development. So far, our Local Infrastructure Fund has unlocked locally-led large housing schemes capable of delivering over 69,000 new homes, and we are working to finalise investment deals for a further 10 stalled schemes capable of delivering up to 35,000 more homes  over 100,000 in total. A prospectus on bids for that fund was published in February 2013 and can be found at: www.gov.uk/government/publications/local-infrastructure-fund-prospectus. This delivered on the pledge made in the Governments November 2011 Housing Strategy for England.

As my noble friend, Baroness Hanham, stated in her answer of 28 January 2013, Official Report, Column 279W, we are keen to promote garden city design in locally-led developments.

The Autumn Statement committed a further £1 billion of funding to unlock locally-led housing schemes capable of delivering up to a further 250,000 new homes. A further prospectus inviting bids to this fund will be issued this Spring.

I hope this re-assures my Rt Hon Friend. The Governments policy is very clear and as Ministers have previously stated to Parliament.”

So what are we to make of that?

Lib Dem President Tim Farron has made the allegation of reports being suppressed. The Deputy Prime Minister does not join him in that attack on the Government. So it is for Mr Farron to substantiate or withdraw.

That still provides localism and of avoiding “indecision and stagnant political will.”

The original garden cities relied on an absence of the planning system and staunch backing from the Daily Mail. As Harry Mount has noted:

The concept was dreamt up by the Victorian social visionary Sir Ebenezer Howard, who wrote about the ideal city in his 1898 book, Garden Cities Of Tomorrow.

Horrified by the squalor of Victorian city slums, Howard envisaged a Utopia where people would live in cities that were in perfect harmony with nature...

And so, in 1903, he founded the first garden city in the world — Letchworth in Hertfordshire, 34 miles outside London…

There was to be no government interference; the land, owned by trustees, was leased to the citizens, who then managed the town themselves; within a decade, Letchworth was self-supporting.

To build his garden cities, Howard needed backing. And that’s where the Mail came in. Lord Northcliffe, who as Alfred Harmsworth launched the newspaper in 1896, supported Howard from the beginning, giving him £1,000 of seed capital in 1902.

The Mail also provided the garden cities with free advertising space.

Lord Northcliffe encouraged his younger brother, Cecil Harmsworth, to join the movement, too.

In time, Cecil Harmsworth became President of the Association of Garden Cities, from 1911 to 1919, as well as an avid fan of Howard, calling him a ‘practical idealist’.

Cecil Harmsworth keenly supported not only the building of Letchworth, but also the second project: Welwyn Garden City, also in Hertfordshire, which was begun in 1920 by architects Louis de Soissons and A.W. Kenyon.

Two years later, Cecil encouraged the Mail to back the Daily Mail Model Village in Welwyn.

The village had an Italian villa and a model dairy, alongside ground-breaking designs, including labour-saving houses and steel-framed homes with double walls, for insulation.

Neo-Georgian houses in the model village were built by disabled war veterans, and the Mail sponsored a traditional village sign, showing a cottage nestling beneath a rainbow.

It is understandable that neither the Lib Dems and the Labour Party – nor for that matter the Daily Telegraph – stress the Daily Mail’s role. But what about sweeping away the planning system entirely? There are practical and philosophical difficulties for all political parties with this. Should “localism” mean a local authority can veto a farmer from building a new settlement on his farm – whether a hamlet, village, town or city?

Whatever the merits of an Edwardian approach we may see in the election campaign Labour again seeking to impose these new cities and Conservatives saying they should only come by consent with the Lib Dems opportunistically switching between the two positions. Then whoever wins the General Election, the planning system stops it happening.

The way to make it a reality would be for the buildings and their surroundings to be attractive. Then would do more to achieve consent that setting targets or offering money. More Letchworths? Yes please. More Milton Keynes’? No thanks. Let’s put the Prince of Wales in charge of delivering them.

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