Opinion: Could Garden Cities be Nick Clegg’s legacy?

It is May 2032 and I am cycling through the green leafy lanes of Coalition Garden City.

There is something remarkable about this new town that sets it apart from Cumbernauld and Cwmbran, even from fabled Letchworth and iconic Milton Keynes. I am on my way to interview the Mayor of Coalition Garden City to find out how this town of 60,000 people achieved the highest happiness ratings in Britain.

In the council’s modest offices, I catch up with Dame Clara Roft, mayor of ten years. “What makes this city tick?” I ask. “Why are you all so happy?”

“Tell me your impression so far,” she said quietly, almost modestly.

“Its green, soft, small scale, friendly”, I began.

“Exactly!” she declared. “And all that stems from a decision made by the coalition government of 2012 to treat the garden cities as community investments not as building projects.”

“Surely that’s just bureaucratic talk?” I challenged. “You can’t build communities.”

Clara shook her head. “Way back then, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg set out five principles for a new generation of garden cities. It was the clearest thinking on development since Ebenezer Howard laid out Letchworth and Jock Campbell declared that Milton Keynes was a social development.”

“It was just five simple principles,” she whispered as though revealing secrets of the dark arts. “The first was to give all the main decisions to Coalition Garden City council from day one.”

I protested. “But, almost no one lived here then. How could you have a council for an empty town?”

Her reply was triumphant. “We attracted people who wanted to help create a new city, not just live in it. We tempted people who wanted to make a difference, stand for council, form entrepreneurial networks and make this place happen. We persuaded the first people that lived in our houses to plan the next communities. We set a democratic snowball rolling.”

I raised my eyebrows. “What did the planning professionals think about that?”

“We employed planners and architects who wanted to design the city for comfort and to be a gentle place to live. It was our ambition to not to be much noticed, not to win architecture prizes, not to be a celebrity city. We did not want to build a Shard or attract a Guggenheim. ”

Before I could interject, Clara continued.

“Then there is the financing model. The government was almost out of cash. We created a trust to build affordable housing using a revolving fund. We’ve since put the parks, woods and community centres into a Community Trust and endowed it with land in the business district. It helps, of course, that we set and keep our own council tax and business rates.”

The mayor glanced at her watch. “Anything else?” she inquired.

“You said five principles. One: democratic snowball. Two: design for people. Three: housing finance. Four: community finance. And the fifth?”

Clara stood up to leave. “That’s the green girdle. We’ve purchased or leased two kilometres of green space all around the city. We call it our micro green belt and manage it for its bridleways, footpaths and wildlife.”

I still had questions I had to ask. “How important are transport connections, business investment, education…” I began. Clara cut me short.

“Create a happy city and all other good things follow. That’s what Ebenezer and Jock believed. That’s what we have achieved here.”

As Clara left, I had one question unanswered but I realised that it was not a question for her. It was a question for Nick Clegg. Did he have these principles in mind when he announced the new garden cities on 22 November 2012?

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice

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10 Comments

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Nov '12 - 4:03pm

    Sorry, I have seen nothing in what Clegg has proposed that is remarkably new or innovative or not waffle.

  • So, could a tiny policy (£225m) which may have no tangible benefits be Nick Clegg’s legacy? Compared to everything else?

    Hmm… No?

  • 2032 – only 20 years to green leafy lanes – Coalition Garden City is obviously no where near as ambitious as Milton Keynes was, which only really came into it’s own after 30+ years, which given the amount of housing that people keep saying we need we will need several new Milton Keynes …

  • Andy Boddington 23rd Nov '12 - 7:28am

    Alex

    The £225 million is not for garden cities, but to kickstart stalled housing projects.

  • Richard Church 23rd Nov '12 - 8:57am

    We don’t need new cities, but we do need more housing and the infrastructure to support that housing. That can be done in and around existing towns and cities with an existing infastructure waiting to be improved. Expansion brings regeneration benefits to towns struggling to attract investment,which would be sucked away by building new towns in green fields.

  • Helen Dudden 23rd Nov '12 - 10:45am

    Still it continues the lack of anything being done. We do need more that words. We need to sort out the housing problems.

  • A large part of our ‘housing problem’ could be resolved by a few tax tweaks to, a) bring empty properties back into use, b) aid the development or relocation of business to areas where whole streets are standing empty, c) Land Value Taxation to ensure best use is made of all developable land, d) reduction of VAT on refurbishment or conversion of empty property… until progress is made on these sort of fiscal steps the rest is just window dressing.

  • Tom Snowdon 24th Nov '12 - 9:49am

    As the average size of households decreases we need to look at the best model required for new housing. New housing needs to be socially mixed and include affordable first homes. Given constraints on available land, shouldn’t we be looking at more of a European model, providing varied, attractive and affordable apartments as well as houses ? We need details on what is proposed, rather than nice sounding waffle.

  • Can we presume this policy was cleared with ALDC and the LGA Lib Dem group before it was announced?

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