Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Preparing to get back to the future

Preparing for : Back to the Future - Co-ops and Garden cities in Letchworth
This week Letchworth Garden City is hosting a conference on community land trusts with the aim of putting social ownership of land and public assets back on the political agenda.. It is bringing together leading thinkers from the co-operative and garden city movements with architects and social thinkers to provide progressive answers to sustainable development and ownership. You could call it ‘big society’ thinking. To be truthful if you had put a Labour badge on the ‘Big Society’ I would have voted for it, and I don’t think I would have been alone. Of course the varnish on that offering has come off as I don’t think the Tories meant the same as us especially when they realised it was about empowerment and the real transfer of power to the people. I think they had in mind more of a paternalistic model with charity at its centre.

Though 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 in London’s Mile End are a good thing and derive from two great 20th century British land movements -  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 praises. But when the Garden City movement was founded it was anything but conservative. For instance while Lenin was in exile in London he attended garden city meetings and even stayed for a while in Letchworth the first garden city. It is record that  ‘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. Ie 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 they wouldn’t leave the city to benefit  some absent landlord. 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 now 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 in 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 few or no repossessions.

But perhaps garden cities and CLTs like football is coming home. Prof. Yves Cabannes from the DPU 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 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 are very interested. We found similar interest when we presented them at the UN Habitat World Urban Forum in Naples in September.

This week we have the conference in Letchworth entitled ‘Back to the future’. As noted It is bringing together the key thinkers from the co-operative movement, garden cities, housing and sustainability experts from throughout the country. 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 this will 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 that’s why I support and fight for it. If Labour is looking for a big idea, one that fits under the ‘one nation’ heading and will see us retake the centre ground around the ‘big society’ and is both progress and radical in nature but is at the same time traditionally British. Well I think this is it.

(this meeting follows on from the meeting reported before at :