Monday 17 March 2014

Back to the Edwardians

In a number of disturbing ways, the news has been worryingly reminiscent of a century ago.  If it isn't the tussles over the meaning of free trade inside the Conservative Party in the UK - the Euro-sceptic debate is an echo of the painful divisions over 'imperial preference' - it is the clash between rival networks of alliances in Crimea and Serbia.

Now there are also garden cities.  There is a grumbling disagreement between the coalition partners about the thoroughly Edwardian idea of 'garden cities'.  Lib Dem president Tim Farron just criticised the Conservatives for suppressing a report recommending two of them.  Now there has been a new garden city announced for Ebbsfleet.

What really exercised the minds of our Edwardian forebears was the argument between garden cities and garden suburbs.  Lo and behold, I found myself arguing exactly that debate again at the party conference in York.

I've often wondered whether I was an Edwardian born out of time (48 years too late, in fact).  It begins to look as if I was born at the right time after all.

George Osborne announced that the new garden city will be organised by an urban development corporation.  This was the idea, modelled on the BBC, that was conjured out of the Attlee government to build new towns in 1946.  It makes sense, but there is something missing nonetheless.

Ebenezer Howard's original scheme for Letchworth Garden City was for the people who lived there to have an ownership stake in the land, and to use the rise in land values to pay for the quality of life in the new garden city - as it still does, just about, in Letchworth.

This is now, once again, as important a consideration as it was a century ago.  Unless some mechanism is put in place, then the development corporation will use the rise in land values to pay for the infrastructure, but will then wind itself up - or sell itself off - and leave everything as it was before.

If it is a success, Ebbsfleet will then be owned in the normal way by landowners and developers, with no stake for the people who live there - whose children will be priced out by the ridiculous property value inflation that we allow in this country by failing to control the amount of money pouring into the housing market.

Will George Osborne have thought through any of this before making the announcement?  Almost certainly not, which is a pity given that it isn't exactly new thinking.  There is nothing new about the idea of separating the ownership of the land and the ownership of the buildings on it.

But if you want to see how these things might be done, you need look no further than the emerging community land trust movement in the UK.

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