Tuesday 10 March 2015

Speech to the New Garden Cities Alliance at the House of Lords


I want to thank Lord Glasman for hosting us here today.

He and I have been talking together about garden cities for the last few years and in that time the idea of garden cities has moved from being a historical footnote to again becoming part of our contemporary debate.

All political parties have talked about garden cities. Two new ones have been announced and we have had the Wolfson prize competition on the subject. During these processes people have been asking ‘what is a garden city?’ or worse still we’d see the media making a rash attempt in trying to define it.

As you can probably appreciate, as the former Mayor of Letchworth I was always being asked ‘What is a garden city?’ so it was nice to see others suffering on this too.

Once I shared a taxi with a man from Hong Kong airport and he said where are you from? I am England? Whereabout? You won't have heard of it I said, try me he said, Letchworth. The garden city? I'm from Chengdu and we want to be a garden city! What do we have to do?

Others have asked

Is it just a marketing term? A better name for a new town? A smoke screen to disguise thousands of new houses? The name for a posh or gated committee? Is it about flowers in the roundabouts? Does it mean a town built in a green field site?

Indeed that debate was as fierce in Letchworth as it has been everywhere else.

Apart from the part about flowers, I have said no to all of these explanations.

I have written my book which details 12 principles for a garden city not being a planner or architect my focus has been on the invisible architecture.
I see a Garden City as being about being fusion of social and architectural principles, the visible and invisible architecture.

As for the Garden City suffix originally it meant something to Howard when he built Letchworth, though it was watered down on subsequent developments. But interestingly mainly only the settlements associated directly with Howard, Unwin and Parker took on the suffix, as others lacked confidence to use it.

But there was a dream that was Letchworth, and that was rooted in its 
invisible architecture which manifested itself in it plans and building.

The focus was on land value capture. Howard’s goal for GC was to capture the ‘unearned increment’ of the rise in land values. To capture that value for the local community not the absent landlord.

Indeed what would Howard say of today’s buy-to-let market?
In LGC today the freehold for much of the commercial, industrial and agricultural estate is held by a trust and has assets of some £127m generating an income of about £7m a year, put back into the committee of only 35,000. Not a bad model to follow and surely a fundamental principle for a future garden city.

Picking up on this issue in September last year at a conference in Letchworth, we took up this issue and published the Letchworth Declaration. Which many of you have seen.

The aim of the Declaration was to task us to create a movement and organise a consensus on garden cities, to set up the mechanisms so that an agreed definition of what a garden city is can take root and to give new and existing settlements the confidence to call themselves ‘garden cities’, ‘villages’, suburbs or towns.

The Declaration mooted an accreditation scheme and a body called a New Garden Cities Alliance to operate it.

The Declaration is a page long, but to summarise it in two sentences would be to say :

The key principle is and the question we are asking is do we want the term garden cities to mean something? And you do how can we make it happen?
I do.

I thank those who has signed the declaration, which has given us a mandate to take things forward.

To those who haven’t signed and for organisations I know this can be harder than it is for individuals.

We aren’t asking for endorsements yet only support for this principle and for
·               participating,

·               encouragement and
·               Enthusiasm.

I am encouraged and enthused because....

There is something happening when significant numbers people and organisations, planners; institutes are gathering around the banner; gathering around the belief that garden cities need to be more than just a marketing term; or be just places for the rich

There is something happening when politicians of all parties coalesce around an idea;

There is something happening when planners,  architects; community groups; ecologists and environmentalists can see the hopes that they all hold in common.

The garden city torch as it is passed to our generation That is what is happening.

It can light our way ahead as we approached the cross roads for 21st century garden cities, and decide what path we want to take.
·               We could take the path to just talk about numbers – 200,000 homes a year or however many.
·               As Maurice has talked before about the danger of just building ‘Brezhnev style homes’
·               Or path of gated committees taking on the appellation

Or leads us down the path of building
·         Socially, Economic and Ecologically sustainable settlements and communities.

Soon the opportunity to define this clearly will pass as the market takes hold and with a new government of what ever colour can press ahead with a building programme.

If we choose to act, then we need to choose to act NOW.  CARPE DIEM

We know we must learn from the past, learn what happens when there is rush to build, a disregard for people and communities.

We remember that in the 60s and 70s we saw the destruction our urban communities, our urban assets, the great town halls, railway stations and communities.

We recognised that today risks lay before us and it the focus must be to preserve and not destroy our rural architecture, but to build in harmony.

Our proposal is that before the first brick is laid, we make it clearer what a garden city. We give people something they can trust in.
So, if we can start to build some consensus today, put together the first steps towards a plan for New Garden Cities Alliance and an agenda for a defining and endorsing what will make a garden city settlement.

If it isn’t done by us, who will do it? Where will it end?
Government can’t do this, shouldn’t do this, but together and only together can we all credibly do this.

But we won’t need to knock anything over..
Our goal isn’t to be troublesome or awkward. Our goal isn’t to prevent things from happening but to make them happen and make them happen in the right way.

The reason for the Declaration is to try and facilitate co-operation and collaboration.

 We believe in garden cities.

 Our  goal is to a vision to bear, build clarity over confusion and offer hope and optimism in place of  cynicism and despair.
 I see the benefit not being just for the people who might live in garden city settlements, but those existing and affected communities, for planners; the architects and the housing developer.

It can be done by harnessing the ingenuity of our architects of buildings and of landscape; our planners and our house builders and our community groups and their values. It can be done by combining together the visible and invisible architecture as one.

That creates the virtue of a garden city.

Which brings us back to the Declaration and to today.
·       Should the term Garden Cities mean something?
·       How can we make that happen?

The aim of today is take that forward.

This we believe can be achieve by setting up an accreditation process which would focus on an agreed set of social, planning and architectural criteria.
We can’t solve it all today, but we can begin the conversation….

So, three things to do :-
1)      Agree what a garden city should be like by looking at values, principles and methods and practises
2)      Work out how a place could be accredited
3)      Work out how this could be managed and organised

Those are our three aims. To discuss today and to give to working parties to take forward.

We have some speakers and discussions areas.

TCPA will talk on their principles to get the conversation started. Nick Falk with talk on how garden cities don’t need to be green field.
We will then discuss the principles.

We will talk also about accreditation.
Robin Murray on fair trade and Liz Wrigley on her experience from Building for Life

And then on how to run a New Garden Cities Alliance which we see as a new body to organise this through.

The goal of today will be to get a mandate – not necessarily an endorsement – to continue working in this area through the establishment of working groups to look at each of these areas.

I hope you enjoy today and it can be stepping stone for the future.
We look forward to your
·       Participation
·       Encouragement and
·       Enthusiasm
Let’s see what we can build today…

Thank you