Q. When is a garden not a garden
A. When it's a quarry
In spite of Kent's claim to be the Garden of England, one might not have automatically thought of Ebbsfleet as the most likely site for the country's new garden city. So how would we assess Chancellor George Osborne’s claims to the visionary nature of his proposal for a development of 15,000 houses in an old quarry site near the high-speed line to Paris? Would Ebeneezer Howard have recognised him as a soulmate?
The Chancellor is an educated man but you do feel he might not have read that deeply on the garden city movement. Scepticism about his choice of location was fended off with the response that 'there is the land available' and that Ebbsfleet has a high-speed line nearby. Surely the vision for a 21st-century garden city should be focused more on sustainable communities than speedy commuting? I would certainly have expected to see plans for food-growing emphasised rather than transport infrastructure.
But the heart of Osborne's disagreement with the original garden city movement lies in the issue of the ownership of land and the value that comes from it. Howard's ideas were about liberating people from oppressive landlords and financiers to become genuine owners of their own homes and communities. It is clear from Osborne's statement that the houses at Ebbsfleet will be built by 'an urban development corporation’ and that the business model, like the model for the new town itself, are actually part of the same busted-flush economy of profit extraction for the enrichment of a wealthy minority.
The call for garden cities grew out of the appalling conditions in the smoky Victorian slums. A breath of fresh air and a reconnection with the countryside was part of the vision but it was matched by the idea of capturing the value of land once it had housing built on it and channelling this money into public services, cultural activities and high-quality social housing. If the value developers usually receive in return for planning permission was socialised rather than privatised we could expect to see well-designed, energy-efficient homes, built of top-quality materials and with large gardens.
The vision of the garden city runs alongside the idea of the greenbelt, an area around urban settlement that would allow people access to nature and would prevent urban sprawl. It is exactly this approach to planning that has been threatened by this government’s planning policies, with their centralised determination of appropriate housing numbers for local communities and the presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’, which has meant that local planning authorities’ attempts to refuse housing on unsuitable land are being repeatedly overturned by the Planning Inspectorate.
The announcement of a 'garden city' is a clear attempt to divert attention from the rebellion underway in the Conservative Party of its disastrous planning policy and the rebarbative Communities Secretary who is imposing it on unwilling local communities. Pickles's junior, Planning Minister Nick Boles, is taking stick from Tory councillors who are outraged by the way the changes to planning mean that they have lost control of local spaces, with the 'presumption in favour of sustainable development' allowing construction corporations to ride roughshod over local wishes and local plans.
I have several friends who stopped volunteering when the Conservatives made political claims to ownership of the Big Society. Why should their goodwill be used for corrupt political motives?, they asked. I fear that the Chancellor's cheap political use of the idea of a 'garden city' may have the same destructive impact on the creative wish to build one's own home that has been stirred by the likes of Kevin McCloud. A true garden city is a place of inspiration and liberation; the proposal for 15,000 houses in an old quarry in Kent is an insult to the memory of the pioneers of the movement.