© 2017 The Harpenden Society

The Harpenden in Question

Being a series of editorial commentaries on important Harpenden issues that should challenge thought and encourage inquiry and action.

15. Time for Boldness.

Winter 2014 Newsletter

At last. A grown-up plan to resolve the major part of the housing crisis. It comes from  David Rudkin, winner of the prestigious Wolfson Prize, second only to the Nobel Prize for economics.

One of the most depressing aspects of the current conflict over where to build houses  is the knowledge that  thousands of towns all over the United Kingdom are struggling with ill thought-out, petty schemes to stick a few scores of houses here and there, scrabbling away at the 'green' edges and 'brown' innards of settlements, causing friction everywhere with hardly a mention of infrastructure or job opportunities and unbalancing the functional ecology of all these places in the process.


The rag-bag idea that you can solve the housing crisis by littering everywhere with scruffy batches of houses is like if in 1939 all the evacuees had been distributed at random all over the nation including the places most likely to be bombed.

David Rudkin offers the courageous and challenging concept of forty 'garden cities', taking what he calls 'a confident bite' out of the available land. But rather than isolate them completely, as sadly happened with some local authority estates in the 1960s and 1970s, he envisages the modern garden city as the 'extension' apart from but close to an existing thriving town, linked to it by fast transit bus and tramway systems. Among the forty sites he lists Oxford, Preston, Carlisle, Bristol, Guildford, Exeter, Harrogate, Stratford-on-Avon, Norwich and Reading, an eclectic roster both geographically and socially, with community backing for the scheme one of the conditions.

Each would be comprised of 86,000 units, with one in five affordable or self-build, with walkable neighbourhoods, 'green' values uppermost and with, of course, schools, shops, businesses and other employment opportunities. Moreover, the traditional 'garden city' principle, laid down by Ebenezer Howard, creator of Letchworth Garden City in 1898 would appertain – the increased land values would be ploughed back into community resources and amenities. David Rudkin proposes a rolling 30 or 35 year programme of 3.5m new homes accommodating up to 6m people.

It has been pointed out that over the last decade the governmental housing targets were missed by as many as 954,000 houses. It really does need something of this vision and boldness to resolve the crisis – and an associate poll shows that 74% of people are in favour and only 13% against the 'Garden City' solution.

Happily, the Town and Country Planning Association, founded by Ebenezer Howard himself, has thrown itself enthusiastically behind this valiant proposal. Town AND Country, mark you; no driving of wedges between artificial sectors – and they have warned the government about 'badging' projects as 'garden cities' when they are not. With regard to the Ebbsfleet, Kent development, Kate Henderson, the forward-thinking young CEO of the TCPA, has judged that, without, for instance, the transfer of increased value to the community, this is NOT a garden city.

Predictably, the Campaign to Protect Rural England objects noisily to David Rudkin's  imaginative plan. He probably breathed a sigh of relief and thought 'I must be on the right lines'. With their unspoken mantra of 'grass before people' and their wish to cram ever more people into overcrowded, confined towns, CPRE have allowed the pastoral fallacy to delude them completely.

Let us print the critical figures once again, utilising the 2012 UK National Eco-System Assessment. Only '6.8% of the UK's land area is now classified as urban'; just to be on the safe side, that includes buildings in rural areas. Because of the enormous amount of this urban area that is parks and gardens and so on, only 2.27% of the whole landscape is actually built on. And, of course, the urban districts cater for well over 90% of the population. At a rough estimate forty new Garden Cities would bring that 2.27% up to maybe 2.4% and the designated urban area up from 6.8% to perhaps 6.9%. Either way it still leaves CPRE and other backwoodsmen opponents of the proposal well over 90% of our green and pleasant land to fret over.

It would be wonderful if, all over the country, all those equivalents of the Harpenden Green Belt Association were telling the politicians 'stop tinkering and fidgeting timidly round the edges and destabilising hundreds of communities; it's a time for boldness'.

Eric Midwinter