Monday, 4 March 2013

Garden Cities - about flowers or land?

The latest Housebuilder magazine carries an article on the renewed interest in Garden Cities: 'The government want the industry to rediscover the joy of garden cities to help boost housing supply and create sustainable development'.  Nick Clegg, following the Coalition's line, says 'Garden Cities should be built across the heart of middle England'.

You can't help feeling that this interest comes from the appeal of the appearance of the Garden Cities, with the hope that Nimbyism will be less vigorous if 'high quality housing' is built.

Re-reading Howard's 'Garden Cities of Tomorrow' what is fascinating is that the physical vision can almost be condensed into Howard's short quote from Ruskin: '... clean and busy street within and the open country without, with a belt of beautiful garden and orchard around the walls, so that from any part of the city perfectly fresh aire and grass and sight of the horizon might be reachable in a few minutes walk'. But the essence of the ideas are not primarily about the city's physical appearance - certainly not its flowers - but how a new financial model could capture land value for the benefit of the community. In fact the bulk of the book is about the financial arrangements to make this work.

With our current crisis of housing with supply both inadequate and unaffordable, particularly for young people, this revolution in how land value is captured is arguably more pressing than it has ever been. We have have to get beyond the present system whereby land at low value is acquired by private companies to feed into the market at just the right rate to maximise profits for their shareholders, which bears no relation to real needs of the population.

Groups such as the  Community Land Trust movement are doing work to counteract the prevailing model. Interestingly, they are often local and small scale and the idea can work at any scale - they are certainly not imposed top-down to cover middle England. Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities were of course initiated as local enterprises.

Those who understand the economics of this model (such as Fred Harrsion who predicted our current crash and ensuing recession in 2005), argue that a complete overhaul of taxation system is needed, with a tax on the 'rents of land' replacing income and corporation tax altogether.

But that's another story ...

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