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Why do politicians think garden cities are the answer to housing shortages?

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It is an insult to the ideas and imagination of Ebenezer Howard to start calling places like Ebbsfleet anything like garden cities, says Paul Finch

The abandoned eco-town programme has done nothing to shake the confidence of politicians in the belief that ‘doing something new’ is the answer to all our built environment problems. Collective amnesia, that most useful of political ailments, has allowed them to believe that ‘garden cities’ are fresh, radical and bound to succeed. They are just eco-towns re-branded and will be about as much use.

It is an insult to the ideas and imagination of Ebenezer Howard, who envisaged garden cities with 300,000 inhabitants, to start calling places like Ebbsfleet any such thing. What is being discussed is 15,000 homes, that is to say, a minor suburb. Ditto the other locations in the South-East that the Labour Party, always sentimental about the command and control era of new towns, pretends will sort out the housing shortage.

What the proponents of these ideas never want to discuss is the awful price we paid when we exported people and jobs from major cities over three decades. We have now had to spend billions of pounds on ‘urban regeneration’ to sort out the vacuums created when we produced utopias like Telford, Peterlee and Skelmersdale. Or, in the case of London, ruined perfectly decent market towns such as Ashford with a combination of social and highways engineering, both of which had to be unpicked at vast expense decades later.

For politicians who find dealing with urban problems a bit too much, there is huge comfort in inventing new model communities without any of those ghastly problems you leave urban councils to resolve, with fewer resources. One of these problems, always unspoken, is that of poor immigrant communities, who for some reason never seem to feature in the glossy brochures for ‘garden cities’, which are allowed to destroy large chunks of green belt because they are, you know, gardens.

A cursory examination of the numbers shows how hopeless these places will be in addressing acute shortages, mainly because they will take so long to build. I can see why the Lib Dems love the garden city idea - it sounds cuddly, it grabs headlines and it makes Nick Clegg look (very briefly) as though he knows what he is talking about.

But it is disappointing to find Labour falling for a housebuilders’ fantasy solution when in living memory it had a solid philosophical and functional proposition as to how we should deal with urban regeneration. The Richard Rogers report, Towards an Urban Renaissance reads as well today as it did when it was produced in the 1990s, arguing for intensification and renewal based around existing infrastructure. It’s good to see that Boris Johnson has got the message and has commissioned Maccreanor Lavington to produced densification proposals for various parts of London. More practices should be commissioned to cover every single part.

If the private sector wants to build at Ebbsfleet, fine: but this does not have to represent a broad public policy as to how we are going to house all our people decently. What we want to do is create housing in the old-fashioned way: through private housebuilding, local authority sponsorship and housing associations.

The private rented sector can play its part, but is in danger of becoming a ramp for proselytisers who think it is sensible for people to pay the rental equivalent of a mortgage but end up with no asset after 25 or 30 years. All these people own their own homes, of course. In similar vein, you will never catch any self-respecting, two-home MP living in a garden city other than a real one.

Oh well. As La Rochefoucauld remarked: ‘Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue’.

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