Garden cities are coming home

by Philip Ross

Although most of the big society thinking seems to have been put to the back of the cupboard, one idea seems to have survived -the idea of community ownership of assets. Boris had a section in his manifesto about community land trusts and the first London one was set in Mile End in July. To be fair, he seemed to get it, but elsewhere the Tories have tried to implement a bastardised form of it, basically withdrawing council funding from assets and asking the communities to pay for things themselves. Not quite the same thing.

Community land trusts (CLT), like that setup in Mile End, are a good thing and derive from two great 20th century British land movements which are the co-operative and garden city movements. You may think of garden cities as being very conservative places with high house prices that David Cameron has praised and wants to see more of.

But when the garden city movement was founded it was anything but conservative. For instance Krupskaya reported that while Lenin was in exile in London he attended garden city meetings and even stayed for a while in Letchworth the first garden city.

He said “Ilyich would listen attentively, and afterwards say joyfully: ‘They are just bursting with socialism!”’. This is in part because the first garden city – Letchworth – had as its social foundation stone the concept that the whole town would be community owned e.g. a community land trust.

The profits generated by the city as its own landlord would be used for the benefit of the people who lived there. It was a radical concept and was only adopted in Letchworth as more conservative elements blocked its adoption on other garden cities.

Yet the company that founded Letchworth endures and still exists in a form today with a community mandate. Though the town itself dropped for many years the suffix “garden city” because of its radical connotations only to bring it back in 2003 to help with house prices.

As with football, the garden city movement and the idea of community land ownership went abroad and is played better in the rest of the world. In the USA there is a burgeoning community land movement normally combining the principles of co-op ownership in housing projects.

Burlington Vermont is a good example but there are hundreds of others throughout the USA. The attraction of them is that they have haven’t suffered as a result of the sub-prime crisis – there have been no repossessions.

But perhaps garden cities and CLTs are coming home. Professor. Yves Cabannes from Bartlett College of UCL and I have written a pamphlet detailing what we believe are the 11 social principles needed to build a 21st century garden city.

In the May this year we went to Hong Kong, Beijing and Chengdu to discuss and present the principles. China, where they are still building new cities, is very interested. We found similar interest when we presented our principles at the UN habitat world urban forum in Naples in September.

Two weeks ago we held a conference nearer to home, in Letchworth, entitled “back to the future.” It brought together key thinkers from the co-operative movement, garden cities, housing and sustainability experts from throughout the country. The aim: putting social ownership of land and public assets back on the political agenda.

It doesn’t matter if you call it “big society”, “localism” or whatever. It’s what it does is that counts. My hope is that conferences such as this will be the first of many steps of putting social ownership, not by the state but by the people is back on the agenda. It is both radical and progressive and offers the party that has the courage to embrace it, a truly distinctive and empowering policy platform.

Philip Ross is a businessman and founded the Labour Small Business Forum

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One Response to “Garden cities are coming home”

  1. swatantra says:

    Excellent article.
    but why are ideas like CLT being picked up by a Tory Administration and not a Labour one?

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