smart growth uk


Jon Reeds
Jon Reeds is a freelance journalist and author of Smart Growth, From Sprawl to Sustainability


Nigel Pearce
Nigel Pearce is a former civil servant, now grappling with local planning issues as a member of the Eynsham Planning Improvement Campaign EPIC.


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Ebenezer Howard Versus Garden Communities

For a long time now, I have had an uneasy relationship with the late Sir Ebenezer Howard.
He was, without doubt, a remarkable man, whose ideas have spread around the world. He disproves Shakespeare's belief about the evil that men do living after them, while the good is oft interred with their bones. Both Howard's good ideas and his bad ones have survived him.
So there's good news and bad news. Let's get the bad out of the way first. Howard's ideas on spatial development have given Britain, and other countries, a development paradigm for more than 100 years which could be characterised as low-density, car-dependent, greenfield sprawl.
His garden cities morphed into a few new towns and vast numbers of garden suburbs which have squandered our scarce building land, trashed our countryside and left us hopelessly dependent on unsustainable transport.
And the good news? Howard was one of those figures whose work at the beginning of the 20th century led to the modern planning profession and planning system. For this he deserves great credit.
But there's another positive angle to his legacy. Howard's main preoccupation was never garden cities themselves or spatial planning. If you read Garden Cities of Tomorrow, it's plain his main interest was communitarian economics and governance.
Now I'm sure the world would be a better place if his ideas had been followed, but they haven't secured very much traction. His admirers, however, continue to press them.
I was reminded of this by the inspectors' letter to Uttlesford District Council, ripping apart its draft local plan as unsound chiefly owing to its support for three wretched 'garden communities'.
The letter is worth a read for anyone fighting these destructive developments, but it's the findings of the two inspectors on 'Garden City Principles' I found most illuminating.
These days it's the Town and Country Planning Association Howard helped found that lays down the Principles on which, allegedly, the Government's 50-odd garden communities are based.
1. Land value capture for the benefit of the community.
2. Strong vision, leadership and community engagement.
3. Community ownership of land and long-term stewardship of assets.
Valuable principles for any development I would have thought.
The two inspectors cited these principles, but cast serious doubt on the adherence of the proposed Uttlesford garden communities to them.
Now this is not some community group objecting to the inevitable trashing of its local environment that garden communities cause. It's two highly qualified and experienced planners appointed by the Government's Planning Inspectorate to examine the local plan. They raised a whole range of issues.
'All these matters cast some doubt as to whether these vital Garden Community Principles would be met in Uttlesford,' they conclude.
And it means everyone objecting to garden communities throughout the land needs to ask whether their developers and land owners really have signed up to land value capture, community engagement, community ownership of the land and long-term stewardship of assets.
I may be wrong, but I see little sign of it.
Of course, land owners and developers who see potential vast profits heading instead for communities will argue this is just one council naive enough to have insisted on the Principles. But Uttlesford is not alone in this and others have done likewise.
Nor can commercial interests run off to Whitehall and complain they're being bullied. The Government's own Garden Communities prospectus is quite clear on this.
'All proposals must set out a clear vision for the quality of the community and how this can be maintained in the long-term, for instance by following Garden City principles,' it says, and it provides no alternative solution.
Thus both the Government's own stated policy and its Planning Inspectorate are insisting on at least some of Howard's communitarian principles.
So it's time to closely examine the other 40-odd garden community plans and see if the land owners and developers are equally willing to see their profits diverted to communities by this admirable legacy of Sir Ebenezer Howard.
We could start with the Wynyard proposal, dumped into the garden communities programme on the same day as the Uttlesford decision became public, presumably to divert attention.
It's a matter of principle.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 15 January 2020


Augean Stables

I suppose if I had just returned from a long and lonesome space voyage to Mars, I would be delighted to discover the Government is planning to spend around a hundred billion pounds or so on rail investment in England.
But, as we all know, although that cash could pay for many high priorities like light rail or metro for our cities, a national freight network including a new link around London to the Channel Tunnel, network electrification, railway reopenings etc., it won't. It will go to HS2.
Personally I'm not as anti-high-speed-rail as some and I do wish people could put as much energy into opposing road construction. High-speed rail could be the icing on a much needed rail investment cake if, and only if, the schemes were well designed. Well integrated with the existing network too.
HS2 isn't. At last, however, there does seem to be some kind of debate about HS2 going on in 10 Downing Street. The most important figure there is said to favour a review. But enough about Dominic Cummings.
Tony Berkeley's recent minority report to the Oakervee inquiry should have put the current HS2 project to bed but, such is the momentum of the Whitehall Flyer running away down grade with one of its schemes lashed insecurely to a wagon, it hasn't.
Lord Berkeley is well worth a read as someone who understands the rail industry and its needs. The questions he asks about the demand for improved services in the areas HS2 would serve, whether it is the best way to meet that demand and whether there are cheaper and more appropriate solutions must be answered before the country adds seriously to its national debt for this scheme.
I won't go through the arguments in detail here, there are too many and they are pertinent. Most of the benefits HS2 is supposed to generate could be secured at a fraction of the price without the harm it would cause.
The argument that HS2 is vital because it would free up much needed capacity on the existing network also falls apart when it's examined. That capacity is needed for sure, but there are better ways of securing it.
As with so much else in national transport and planning policy, a full and proper debate is needed. It needs to be conducted away from Whitehall whose own 'reviews' are all too often designed to produce the answer that Whitehall was right all along, and probably brilliant to boot.
But the entire HS2 fiasco is yet another example of Whitehall not knowing best. The NPPF, garden communities, the Expressway and the rest of the trunk road building programme, the Arc, fantasy housing targets, airport expansion etc., etc..
Need I go on?
A new Government ought to be an opportunity to ask these questions. We urgently need a proper national debate on HS2, not a closed-doors fudge.
Will we get one? We shall see.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 14 January 2020