As the MP for this beautiful constituency with such a large part of rural Hertfordshire, I have often argued against inappropriate development in my constituency. But, I have always recognised that there is a duty to try to meet housing needs. In recent years, I have come to the conclusion that there is a pressing need for housing in the Garden City.
LETCHWORTH HOUSING NEED
Letchworth is a town with above average house prices. We all know young Letchworth people who are being forced to move away from the town in order to rent or buy properties they can afford.
There are just not enough homes in a range of sizes for the young, for overcrowded families or for the elderly who wish to downsize.
When I visited the Howard Garden over-50s Group recently, they pressed me on the need for more properties suitable for them in later years: that is smaller, more convenient and energy efficient homes.
At the same time, companies in the town worry about housing for their workers. One local man said I was wrong about this, but I meet the business community regularly and the subject of housing for workers comes up. In businesses in Letchworth you will find people, who were brought up in Letchworth, having to commute from Biggleswade, Sandy and even Milton Keynes, because there is nowhere here for them to live and bring up a family. So, it is no surprise that Letchworth has less people in the 20 to 45 year age group than the average in England (30% against 34%).
My surgery is full of Letchworth housing cases, often young couples wanting to set up their first home. Because there are insufficient properties available, they have to look elsewhere. As a result, Letchworth has had a stagnant population for ten years and is at risk of becoming a dormitory town. We are forcing our youngsters out.
This affects retail and schooling too.
EFFECT ON TOWN CENTRE AND LOCAL SHOPS
The Town Centre faces all the challenges that high streets face nationally – the overall financial situation, out of town shopping, internet shopping – but in Letchworth, they also have to contend with a constrained population. There are less 18 and 19 year olds, and less 20 to 45 year olds than the average in England.
This is mirrored in low levels of demand in some estate shops.
Local secondary schools such as Norton have closed due to lack of numbers and yet even after the closure, there are places in the local secondary education sector.
Meanwhile, 3000 people are on the District Council waiting list for housing and many more are looking to rent and buy. The Council recently asked all local landowners if they would put forward any possible sites for development. It is now consulting on those it considered might be suitable for development.
The current consultation is not about giving planning permission, but about whether there are sites which could be developed.
Clearly, if a site is considered possible, it would be necessary to go into all the detail about layout, access, facilities and how to ensure sustainability and respect for wildlife. Further consultations are planned before preferred sites are identified and even then, full planning process would have to be followed.
One of the identified sites is farming land north of the Grange Estate, owned by the Heritage Foundation. The site falls within the Green Belt. The Heritage Foundation has long protected the commercial farm fields around the Garden City to ensure there is no coalescence with neighbouring towns and, in accordance with the Garden City principle of sustainability, to provide that a community would make food as well as consume it. The Green Belt is a more recent version of this Agricultural Belt. The Heritage Foundation has made it clear that it would only consider offering to develop any of its Green Belt land, if local housing need required it. I would suggest that that need has been demonstrated.
A GARDEN SUBURB
The Heritage Foundation site could be used imaginatively to create a new Garden Suburb. This would embrace early Garden City layout principles and would include common land similar to Norton Common and orchards. There would need to be an emphasis on demonstrating ecological and environmental sustainability. In short it could be an example to rest of the UK. But there should be a debate about this.
Any incursion into the Green Belt has people reaching for their pens, or in the modern world, their keyboards. But I want to take a calm and measured look at this proposal.
There are five stated purposes for the green belt:
- The first is to check unrestricted sprawl
A new Garden Suburb would be a model of town planning
- The second is to prevent neighbouring towns from merging into one another
The north Letchworth site is not strategic in preventing coalescence
- The third purpose of the Green belt is to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment
A Garden Suburb based on Garden City principles could enhance the countryside by converting commercial fields into managed common land with more varied flora and fauna
- The fourth purpose is to preserve the setting and special character of a historic town
A Garden Suburb could improve the setting by giving a stronger Garden City character to the North of Letchworth.
- Finally the Green belt assists in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.
There is already a strong move – led by the Heritage Foundation – to re-use and improve sites within the town. But the town’s housing demand will not be met by piecemeal developments within the existing boundaries.
Once an area of land has been defined as Green Belt, the stated opportunities and benefits include:
- Providing opportunities for access to the open countryside for the urban population
- Providing opportunities for outdoor sport and outdoor recreation near urban areas
- The retention of attractive landscapes and the enhancement of landscapes, near to where people live
- Improvement of damaged and derelict land around towns
- The securing of nature conservation interests
- The retention of land in agricultural, forestry and related uses.
I believe that most of these objectives could be achieved by a Garden Suburb.
If you agree that we do need development, I would argue that it would be better to do it in a planned way and in accordance with Garden City principles, so that we can be proud of an outcome with beautiful managed common land, more green ways, community orchards and green spaces; an ecological and environmental exemplar of sustainability with layout planned the Ebenezer Howard way.
GARDEN CITY PRINCIPLES
Let’s cast our minds back to the original Garden City principles.
Ebenezer Howard described his vision thus "... by so laying out a Garden City that, as it grows, the free gifts of Nature- fresh air, sunlight, breathing room and playing room- shall be still retained in all needed abundance"
His key principles included:
· Community ownership of land and long term stewardship of assets
· High quality imaginative design including homes with gardens
· Mixed tenure homes affordable for ordinary people
· A strong local jobs offer with a variety of employment opportunities within the garden city and easy commuting distance of homes
· Generous green space linked to the wider countryside. In Hampstead Garden Suburb, for example, over 60% of the land is green space, including a mix of public and private networks of well managed, high quality gardens and open spaces.
· Access to strong local cultural, recreational and shopping facilities
· Integrated and accessible transport systems
· Local food sourcing, including allotments.
Over the last century the Garden City ideals have proved outstandingly durable. Today, we still face the primary challenges confronted by Howard and his followers: meeting our housing shortage, generating jobs and creating beautiful and inclusive places.
We should remember that the promoters of the Garden City were not out to build an artistic town. Indeed, Letchworth was planned basically by the constraints of the site. Raymond Unwin, architect at Letchworth, took a pragmatic view - “We must first see that our citizens are decently housed."
But he was also clear what he did not want, explaining that :
" It was necessary to break away from the customary type of street with its endless rows of houses, cramped in frontage, hideous in appearance from the street, and squalid in the congestion of its back projections and its yards."
Garden cities were the original manifestation of sustainable developments. The 21st century Letchworth design competition and subsequent development of the winning designs has shown how Garden City principles fit seamlessly with today’s eco-environment.
Before entering Parliament, I made a speech to the Conservative Party Conference in 1989 about the need to improve energy efficiency. I argued that we should make people aware of the limited nature of our energy resources and their effect on the planet.
I have since spoken about this issue on many occasions in the House of Commons.
If we are to have new development in Letchworth, I would like to see a strong emphasis on reducing the carbon footprint. This can be through the design itself – glazing on south facing aspects, by using modern insulation methods and by installing renewable energy such as solar. Additionally, we are in a water-stress area and houses should be built with low water usage devices which need half the current levels. We saw many such innovative ideas incorporated in the 21st century designs.
Any development on the Green Belt would have to offer significant public open spaces and amenity areas. The area would have a community orchard and I would like to see community gardening made possible. Individual homes should have space to “grow your own” and a Farmers Market could flourish.
As well as space for games and exercise, prominence should be given to cycle routes. The current Garden City Greenway is well used, but as well as retaining the existing route, which runs through the site; I would like to see a new outer route. It should also be possible to provide cycle routes from the site to the Town Centre.
A HERITAGE FOUNDATION DEVELOPMENT CAN BE DIFFERENT
The advantage of a development by the Heritage Foundation on its own land is that it can take an exceptional view and follow Garden City principles. It would not be just another development and it would not be required to make early financial returns. The Heritage Foundation has the benefit of being able to take a long view.
Having said that, any capital or income from the scheme would have to be ploughed back into the Garden City and its good causes. This would not be a typical building development. Letchworth pioneered the Garden City movement in the last century and could do so again.
ACCESS NEED NOT BE THROUGH EXISTING ROADS
Already, as a result of the publication of the consultation document, residents on the Grange Estate are expressing their concerns about access to the site. I do not believe it would be necessary for traffic to use the existing roads through the Grange Estate and it is important that this is made clear at an early stage of the process..
A COUNCIL MATTER
But none of this is up to me – it is a Council matter. I wanted to be part of the debate and to say that we do need housing in Letchworth and, if there is to be building, I would like to see something of exceptional quality, in accordance with Ebenezer Howard’s principles and worthy of the World’s First Garden City.