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