Back to the Future? - Conference Report
As you pull into Letchworth station you will see a sign welcoming you to ‘the world’s first garden city’, some are unsure what that means exactly but others know that the town is the international birthplace of modern town planning. Letchworth Garden City was founded nearly one hundred and ten years ago and attracted radicals such as Lenin, George Bernard Shaw, Orwell among its early visitors and inhabitants. Then the term ‘garden cities’ suggested something radical, utopian and progressive. Though in the century that followed the ‘Daily Worker’ has been replaced by the ‘Daily Mail’ and the suffix ‘garden city’ was dropped from the town’s name because of its radical connotations only to be added back in 2003 to help - one suspects - with house prices. Despite this there remains an echoed of the old radicalism in the town that cannot be suppressed or forgotten by any number of blue rinses. Letchworth has in recent years seen local battles to relight the fire of them garden city movement and to move it away from a focus on planning and housing techniques to be a social, governance and environment movement once again.
So it is quite fitting that now the idea of ‘garden cities’ are being reappraised for the 21st century that the conference to focus on their social and economic as opposed to simple architectural plans would be held in Letchworth. The conference ‘Back to the Future?’ held in November 2012 was organised with a focus on co-operative cities, community land trusts and garden cities.
The conference followed on from a previous co-operative meeting led by the New Economics Foundation on Co-ops and Garden Cities which had been held near Kings Cross, London in July 2011. It had concluded that the co-ops and garden cities were still an idea worth pursuing.
Both co-ops and Garden cities were significant social and economic movements from the 20th century. Both had their roots in mutualism. Letchworth as a garden city was founded as a ‘mutual or co-operative’ town what we would now terms as a community land trust. This conference would be bringing together radical thinkers, social activists, co-op people and putting them together with planners, architects and more conservative established bodies such as the Town & Country Planning Association.
As a social activist - as opposed to being a professional planner, architect or manager - iIt was my objective to see if we could build some fresh narrative on garden cities and co-operative cities and see if people agreed that the idea of community land ownership (as a CLT) was not just a ‘nice to have’ but the key building block for future communities. That is the aim of our network - the New Garden City Movement - to take practises and techniques and combine them with values and principles and build a new garden city movement for the 21st century.
The meeting at Spirella Building in Letchworth began with a short presentation by John Lewis the new CEO of the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation. The Foundation is the successor to the original CLT company that was originally set up to found Letchworth. John explained that Letchworth had been founded in 1903 by a company owned the town and residents were to become its shareholders. Today that company still exists though in slightly different form; though it has lost much of its housing stock (as people bought out their leases) much of the commercial, industry and agricultural land remain in its hands. It continues to reinvest profits into the community. It now has assets of £110m, annual profits of £7m and annually spends £4.5m in the town – all for a population of only 33,000. The strength of the story of Letchworth is the town’s assets are still the large extent intact and local ownership has been retained. The Letchworth example is interesting because of endurance and because it is town-wide and also most other CLTs are focused on housing and for the Letchworth that is the one asset is no longer has.
Robin Murray who is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics followed. He talked about how relevant is the concept of the co-operative city is. He noted the success of the co-operative model siting one example of Botswana where farmers had pooled their resources to gain land and had then made co-operative farms. Such was the success that co-operative banks followed and the model has rolled out into the rest of the economy. He made reference to the Rochdale Co-operative Principles and the idea of ‘co-operative accumulation’ and how in Botswana it was in practise. It seems to me to be the accumulation of both social and economic capital. He noted also that in Italy it tended to be written in the objectives of new co-ops that they had to be create new co-ops. (To me this seems to be a good objective for any future garden city too).
Following on from Robin was Kate Henderson from the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA). Her presentation was refreshingly progressive. She noted the serious shortfall in British house building - it is at its lowest point for 65 years. Yet independent analysts suggest, she noted, that we need to be building some 300,000 houses just to keep up. Ms Henderson suggested what we didn’t want was ‘bolt-on estates’, what was need, she said were ‘wonderful places’ for people to live, where the idea of community is built in from the start. She told the conference that the TCPA had been working hard to raise the profile of garden cities with the Government and all the political parties. She told us that some success was achieved when garden cities principles were referenced in the recent planning legislation, this she noted the first time for some 40 years. (What those principles are, she added, the act didn’t say. We would suggest our 11 social principles). She noted too the difference between garden cities of the past which had often been private schemes to the new town schemes which had been done by the Government. Lessons should be learnt historically from both.
Bob Paterson from Community Land & Finance spoke next on ‘what are the barriers to Community Land Trust solutions in cities?’. He noted that though over 100 CLTs had been established in recent years, the successful ones tended to be in rural area. In urban areas they found that local authorities are reluctant to transfer over any assets or trust any community organisations to run them. He cited one example in Salford where instead of transferring the asset it was sold to developers instead, who put expensive housing on it. As the value of the land then rose none of this value benefited the community. He noted that in some circumstances this was worse as previous generations of families may have gifted land to the local authority for the public good only to see it sold off and for others to gain from it. Bob talked about the need to ‘hold value for the community’. He cited some good examples that had worked. He mentioned Shoresfield a village in Oxfordshire where residents had from a CLT raised capital and bought their land. Today like in Letchworth it turns a modest profit for community benefit (some £40,000 a year). Other good examples given were of Coin Street in London and others in Bristol. But in the answer to the question he noted the biggest obstacle seemed to be the political (and presumably bureaucratic) will of local authorities to engage and give up their assets.
After the lunch, David Rodgers from ICA Housing noted that CLT and Housing Associations are not the same thing. A Housing Association, he said often comes from the public sector and is regulated as a public sector organization whereas CLTs are held by people in the ‘private sector’. A CLT he noted is not just about housing but is about ‘holding value locally in perpetuity’. David noted many examples of CLT and Garden Cities. The most interesting example was of Brentham Garden Suburb. Though like most other garden suburbs it is no longer socially owned, but while it had been it had been the childhood home of British tennis ace Fred Perry. His father had been politically active and he had found a home there. It was playfully suggested that perhaps the ‘socially owned’ tennis court had helped him to win Wimbledon?
As for co-operative housing projects - internationally - he noted that there tended to be three model - rental; limited equity and ‘market value’. (Those often a mix of all three). A great social example he quoted was that of Kappelleveld in Brussels. This housing garden city and co-op had 1,200 rental properties rented out on an income related model, this had been working successfully for 40+ years. He listed other international examples from Leeds to Turkey and said that in all the models there were key underlining features - that they all tended to be novel, innovative and contentious. (This was true of Letchworth and from speaking with activists from CLTs in Burlington and Montreal I know this to be true there too).
Speaking for the Welsh government, Rhidian Jones spoke about ‘Mutual Home Ownership’ and the Co-operative Housing Agenda for Wales. He explained that the Welsh housing minister was a co-op member and that the Welsh Government has a clear commitment to community land trusts and co-opertative principles. He said that they felt the measures for success were schemes needed to provide democratic community membership and the ability for all members to be involved in the governance. (Something that is also echoed in the 11 principles of the new garden city movement). He explained that in Wales they are still in the process of defining CLTs in legislation. Everyone in the room was encouraged by Rhidian’s speech and the obvious commitment to CLT’s and co-operative ownership by the Welsh Government.
Pat Conalty from the new Economics Foundation spoke next. Pat had been at the original meeting on co-operative and garden cities. He talked about the ingredients needed for co-operative and mutual solutions (practical land reform; low cost equitable capital and a co-operative and mutual governance model) and noted how these have been achieved for housing solutions and also for community land banks helping groups to grow local food. He noted too on the history of CLT linking the movement back to Thomas Spence in the 18th century and also to Robert Owen and to the Chartists movement. He painted an interesting picture of struggle. He noted that the 20th century saw a revival of the principles in USA in the 1970s as the CLT movement. These he noted are expanding to include Burlington, Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, Albuquerque and Irvine, California. In Irvine he noted a large town comparable with Letchworth was being built. He touched on the link between agriculture, food production and CLTs. Burlington he noted had introduced the Intervale food project with its ‘city garden’ which now provided 7% of the food for the town and Cleveland had a similar project. In Cleveland too he noted that the success that co-ops have had in providing solar energy. Indeed, he made the general observation that huge amounts of US energy was provided by energy co-ops which had been kick started by President Roosevelt and was a great American example of successful Mutuals.
Members then broke off into discussion groups to pull together what they had learnt. A key message coming out of all the groups was that if land can be mutualised then the value can be captured for the community. With land held in common up top of it could then be built other co-operative structures and organisations. All this had a very garden city feel to it reflecting those original principles of capturing value for the community in perpetuity. It was felt by the conference that the mutual or garden city should be on the cutting edge of ideas and that the co-operative movement has a big role to help in helping the garden city and CLT to grow. It was suggested that it should help underwrite a development bank for such purposes. Also the goal should be to lock prosperity into a locality. If a future garden city should generate a dividend this could even be paid out to citizens in the form of a local currency so that it has to be spent and invested locally. If this was linked in with ideas like crowd-funding or peer-to-peer funding, local funds could receive investments in a local currency.
As groups reported back with ideas such as these and more to the conference it became clear to all delegates that the potential for garden cities and for progressive, radical and mutual solutions for the future remains as strong now as it must have done a century ago. As delegates left, one thing was clear that the conference must surely have marked the beginning not just of new discussions but hopefully of a new powerful new movement for the future.