Monday 9 December 2013

Land & Community: Creating a 21st Century Commons

"Great to have been a part of the 'Land & Community: Creating a 21st Century Commons event' at Coin Street on 5th December. Event was hosted by Shared Assets" says Philip Ross

Included the launch of the 'Common-sense report by Co-ops UK'.

See Philip's speech below :

Coin Street Address
My name is Philip Ross, I am a citizen of Letchworth Garden City.
A citizen.
  • I am not a planner
  • I am not an architect
  • I don’t work in housing and I am not here to represent any organisation
I am here instead to represent an idea which at its most basic is that the real definition of a garden city is that it is a social rather than an architectural project.
I was the Mayor of Letchworth in 2007-9 and won a high court case asserting and defending those principles.
Since then I have kept up that fight been on a mission to help define what makes a garden city.
Some of you may have read our pamphlet (HOLD IT UP).
I am determined that the garden city term must remain with the co-operative movement, with us in this room and must not become a by-word for new gated communities.
It is a fight that together we are winning.
So let me tell you why I think this report - Common Sense - is so important and how we need to use it.
But I am not from Letchworth either - as many people use to tell when I was Mayor. I wasn’t born into the faith but I am convert!

We moved there in 2000. It was just called Letchworth then - the Garden City suffix had been dropped a few decades earlier. We never looked for a house in Welywn Garden City as it sounded far too expensive and posh.

You see the GC suffix had been dropped to distance it from its early associations with radical politics and ideas such as
  • collective land ownership
  • that was rumoured to have attracted Lenin to the town and
  • that it was the home the many from the ILP and co-ops.
As they swapped theDaily Worker for the Daily Mail they wanted to forget this past
So come 2003 and the town’s centenary the suffix was restored in part to help house prices, it was almost forgotten.

I too had been blind to what the garden city was about

But as the embers were turned over during the centenary celebrations something caught my attention and allowed me to see what the garden city was truly about.
It was that I noticed that people could call themselves ‘a citizen’ of Letchworth. Where had this come from? I wondered.

I had worked in and lived in many towns, new and old. Sunderland, Newcastle, Peterlee, Washington New town, Stevenage, Luton and Leamington Spa. But no-where else had I heard people call themselves citizens. But in Letchworth they could, it had resonance.
I realised that it was in the DNA of the town. That foundation stone had been collective ownership. Howard’s idea that people could collectively own the town and be their own landlord and share in its prosperity.
And the emanation from that is Citizenship implies a stake in, a sense of place and belonging.
I ceased to see the GC as
  • being about roundabouts with flowers,
  • regulation height of hedges and
  • chocolate box houses - a heritage model to be preserved.
But a radical proposition to take forward….
As I realised that this garden city citizenship is the special ingredient that turns houses, factories and offices into homes and communities.
Interestingly enough Letchworth is often spoken of in the same breath as
  • Bournville,
  • Saltaire and
  • Port Sunlight.
Wonderful as these places are, they are different.
These are places built principally out of CHARITY and PATERNALISM. Home for grateful and deserving workers.
The GC on the other hand is a
  • co-operative model,
  • involving institution building.
  • And empowerment
About citizenship creating a sense of place and belonging, not just a sense of gratitude.
That is what I like about this report. It gets it, it understands this key concept.
I picked up three key issues
  1. Environmental sustainability
  2. Economic sustainability
  3. Social sustainability
They are less like three magnets more like three rings that link together and are overlaid and there strength of strong and democratic governance.
1) Environmentally and ethically sustainable. As talked about for Eco towns, but I like the bits in the report on district heating and community food. The role of urban agriculture not just for food but in creating recreation and a sense of place.
2) Economic sustainability
Land value capture is at the heart of the argument. As Shann Turnball talks about the CLB and elsewhere about CLT’s.
I know that there is this cynical liberal wisdom which says ‘it all sounds good on paper but secretly we don’t think it will actually work…’
The fact is that it does work and Letchworth is the living proof that it does.
110 years on £127m in assets and £7m a year for a population of 35,000.
Wealth created not from coffee beans in Brazil, or derivatives trading, or the lucky purchase of apple shares. But wealth generated locally through rising land values.
Milton Keynes is another example :  assets of £20m in 1991 now worth £84m.
In Letchworth the monies has not come from the fact that it has been well managed - on the contrary- but from holding the asset together and getting the rise in land values - the unearned increment.
Where it hasn’t worked? In the report Shann turnball talks about the Jubilee Line extension £3.5bn spent with a £13bn uplift in property values - the beneficiaries? Absent landlords.
That is the issue, not creating land values, but about capturing it. Someone will, it is our responsibility as a movement to ensure that it is captured for common good.
3) Socially sustainable
and this include affordable sustainability. If there has been a criticism in the past it is that garden cities are taken over by the rich. I like the parts on CLT’s and the model in use in Burlington VA that creates a resale formulae. And also in Chicago.
  • Land value capture is at the heart of the argument.
  • Social sustainability means keeping going the participation.
  • Not just about sharing the prosperity, but in sharing the decision making on how it is shared.
Participation not just in building it but in running it. About good governance.
So we should say to the architects and urban planner contemplating building new towns or garden cities or entering the Wolfson competition
That these social values and principles aren’t something that can be bolted on at the end, but like in Letchworth need to be there in DNA right from the start.
But we can’t just hope that they will be picked up, we need to make sure that they do.
We need to recreate a new social garden city movement that will have custody of the garden city brand and definition.
We don’t need to ask permission to do it
We just need the courage of our convictions to act.
I commend the report and the principles it extols which marry with our own 12 principles.
  • to you all and
  • to the Coalition Government
  • and to a future Labour Government.
To build a garden city where all can Share, enjoy and prosper
Thank you

Philip Ross