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Off to Milton Keynes: Why garden cities are evil

Blog post by Andrew Teacher

Before we get started, I’m not going to pretend to have gone through each of the Garden Cities entries shortlisted for the Next chap’s £250,000 prize with a fine tooth comb, although from what I saw they genuinely looked like they'd been pulled together by some hugely creative and inspiring thinkers far more talented than me. 

But what I did find most amusing about the meticulously manicured PR saga around it was how, Wednesday’s Today Programme debate, the property world grudging found itself on the same side as the National Trust’s chief for the first time… like, evah!

Her view, like most sane people, was that people want to live near stuff: jobs for instance, train stations, universities or pet shops; pubs where you can see people you know and kebab shops you can stop in at on the way home when you think your friends aren’t looking. Not places like Ebbsfleet which are pylon-strewn wastelands on the edge of nowhere where the major selling point is being able to get to Stratford in 20 minutes.

Back before Twitter took hold, I had another way of amusing myself during many of the dull conferences I’d get sent along to during my tenure at the British Property Federation. It involved counting the number of times speakers would use the phrase “sustainable communities”. I’d offer myself a secret reward if I broke my personal best.

The sentiment rings true today: people spend so much time crunching theory and spouting academic assessments of what people want and how big gardens should be they forget the basic premise of life is to work, have kids and get pissed occasionally with your mates.

Whether you look at Kings Cross, Manchester, Bristol or Birmingham what they all have in common is a strong transport hubs, academic institutions and commercial centres. Plonking a so-called garden city in the middle of nowhere may enable bigger gardens and potentially cheaper houses, (thanks to the land being worth bugger all). But if you have to lay new roads, tram rails and build new garden centres and hospitals for all the decaying middle classes boring themselves to death living in the middle of nothing, the cost is simply applied back.

Once upon a time, talk was all about Tesco Towns – and I recall doing an hilarious bout of radio interviews defending the supermarket at the time on this. But given they’re now pretty broke, the prospect of Phil shelling out for a bunch of superstores with villages on top is about as likely as Terry Leahy rolling on to X-Factor.

When Gordon Brown announced the previous incarnation of garden cities known as eco towns – which was always said to have been done without him telling officials in the Department for Community and Local Government – everyone sneered at the pointlessness of building cities in the middle of nowhere. People pointed out that, as a growing economy, we need to be near to all the things that enable growth.

And now, for some excruciatingly bonkers reason, we’re holding Milton Keynes aloft as some perverse example of things going right. Excuse me, but is this the same place that campaigned against the listing of its main shopping centre? Has anyone actually been there recently?

The idea that building around existing cities automatically means sprawl and destroying the sacrosanct green belt sends you directly to hell can’t surely still be acknowledges with any degree of seriousness. The green belt hasn’t shifted in nearly 70 years, despite the massive hike in population. Anything else unmoved for three quarters of a century would be dug up and revamped in no time.

Crucially though, whether garden cities are great or not is neither here nor there when you consider that, unlike new runways, garden cities aren’t going to magically appear at the behest of some incumbent land owner. Who’s going to pay for them? And where do they sit in the country’s long-term development plan for energy, transport and social infrastructure, because surely nobody’s suggesting we build entire new urban environments before having a national plan for power?

And therein lies the point: there has to be a strategy; an overarching plan; something which links the left and right hand.

Someone has to ask the potential new dwellers if they’d actually see themselves commuting from the site of three former power plants in Kent where Shelter wants to shove everyone. Someone should ask young families how they could possibly afford child care if they’re not able to live within an easy drive of free child minders known as parents.

Of course if these new urban centres could offer truly affordable housing – which would need to be State subsidies; and genuinely be sculpted as part of a long term national vision of the green infrastructure we need, then great. But if our sites are set on Milton Keynes and Ebbsfleet – a site which has lain dormant with planning permission for years – then we may as well give up now.

Hopefully, one of the cheeky data folk at Savills or Knight Frank will produce a datamap of where the winner could buy a house with their £250,000 winnings. Milton Keynes perhaps?

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