Just over a century ago, the former Liberal prime minister Lord Rosebery was quoted in an important new book describing London as a 'giant tumour':
"Sixty years ago a great Englishman, Cobbett, called it a wen. If it was a wen then, what is it now? A tumour, an elephantiasis sucking into its gorged system half the life and the blood and the bone of the rural districts."
Rosebery was reflecting a growing understanding of the problem of inner cities, burgeoning from the agricultural depression and hideously overcrowded. He was also chairman of London County Council.
The book was the prescription to do something about it. Garden Cities of Tomorrow, by the House of Commons shorthand writer Ebenezer Howard, explained how the urban poor could be persuaded to live in new green towns, where they owned the land, living to a high environmental standard – rescuing rural areas and cities at the same time.
I thought of this when I read yesterday about the serious overcrowding in the schools in London’s East End at the start of the new term.
London now needs about 200 new schools just to keep up with the growing population. Imagine being a four-year-old going for the first time this week to Gascoigne Primary School in Barking, to find all the play space covered with temporary classrooms and you as one of 1,200 pupils.
It is precisely this kind of hothouse factory schooling, drab portakabins, titan schools, impersonal giantism, that causes the great divisions in UK education (see my new book Broke on the subject).
Howard’s book led to Letchworth, Welwyn and the new towns, and for most of the last century London, together with most cities in the western world, has been shrinking. Not any more.
The sudden rise in population has been expected for years. Ken Livingstone worked for it tirelessly and disastrously. But as so often in UK policy, nobody seems to have planned for it, least of all the current useless mayor.
So we are back to town cramming, squeezing the poor into monstrous flats, which is in many ways the dark side of he Spirit of ’45, we have been hearing so much about. The Attlee government went for new towns but they also went for flats for the poor – precisely the opposite of what they actually wanted.
So I am glad that Nick Clegg dusted down garden cities at the end of last year. That has to be the way forward. A new generation of garden cities, with homes and gardens, where the land is held by the community and can use the rise in land values to their own benefit. And, above all, where there is work.
These must not be the great soulless edge of town estates so beloved of the Glasgow Labour Party, still less the kind of 'Prescottville' sprawl we got in the Docklands.
But this time, they are not going to be as close to London, like Harlow, Stevenage and Welwyn.
We have to ask ourselves, what would it take to make an economic success of new garden cities in the great abandoned spaces of northern England – around Bradford or Newcastle or in the industrial wastelands of the East Midlands?
What would it take to repeat the success of Milton Keynes a little further to the north? High speed rail, possibly. Regional government, possibly. Major decentralisation of power, definitely,.