- continued -  

Howard had also clearly read Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (1879) that tackled land reform arguing that the artificially high value of city centre property excessively burdened the workers. He proposed a land tax that might recoup the value created by a future community and which could be reinvested within the town to make it self-funding. Unfortunately, when the Garden City was begun, near the small town of Hitchin in Hertfordshire, only £40,000 had been raised from philanthropic sources from a proposed £300,000. The self-governing ideal was abandoned but even then rents proved too high for many rural workers. Letchworth became home to many middle class radicals: ‘Cranks’ as they became known. Architecturally, Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker were allowed free reign with their mediaeval-inspired designs. Celebrating the dignity of labour and traditional craft, their buildings echoed the simplicity of hand-woven smocks and sandals that many of the first ‘Arcadian’ settlers wore. George Orwell writing in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ some years later recounted that Letchworth was home to “every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, nature cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England”. Tour parties came up from London on the railway to stare and laugh at the inhabitants and their ‘back to the land’ principles.


Late afternoon sun gently brushes the tops of the Leylandii hedges that surround Jane Mole’s allotment. Beds of lovingly tended beans, cabbages and potatoes sit in rows of rich, dark soil patrolled by her two cats. Mole, an elfin 43, spreads her arms wide and beams, “This is why we moved here…” Over peppermint tea she explains that she and her partner came from nearby Ware (also in Hertfordshire) but “… it was so overcrowded, the gardens were untidy and you were hemmed in on all sides by neighbours and noise”. “Here” she says, “We could stay in our jobs (her husband commutes daily to London) and have small holdings”. 

Letchworth undoubtedly has changed since its eccentric early days but its ideals created a movement that led to Welwyn Garden City (recently lampooned by the critic Tom Dychoff as “somewhere you’re Mum might design”) and Hampstead Garden Suburb. Both are geographically closer to the Metropolis and have in a sense fared better economically that Letchworth. According to Peter Campbell writing in the London Review of Books, “The Garden Cities were no answer to the problem of housing the poorest classes and by the outbreak of the First World War, housing had become an important political issue”. After the armistice, ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ were seen as a crucial bulwark against Bolshevism and housing became a government responsibility. The Garden City ideal, not for the last time in periods of crisis, would be an effective political solution. Letchworth’s promise of a sunny idyll with clean air and space was clearly something to be welcomed but just as they were “dilutions of the vernacular building which inspired them, so state housing on garden city lines was a poorer thing than its models” (Peter Campbell A Better Life). Council housing and public money undoubtedly saved but also changed Letchworth, and large sections on the outskirts could be overspill estates in any big town. In its centre, Letchworth currently has somewhere between 13% and 20% of empty retail units. The town’s industry declined during the 1970s and the commuter aspect, at least superficially, makes Letchworth feel quintessentially a conservative ‘Home-Counties’ space. For Mole though, “there’s a lot going on with the community and that harks back to its origins… with St Christopher’s (a vegetarian school)… people walking around in Birkenstocks - you know, if you’re out in the daytime you see the pram-pushing mum’s but on any evening of the week, you could go and speak French or Esperanto…” And she laughs - “What other town has a Mah-Jong society?”


After the Second World War, British planned communities entered a new era and the State acted as a large-scale planner for the first time. Government reports led to the New Town Act (1946) which was deeply influenced by the Garden Cities but lacked their foresight. Twenty-eight towns were designated ‘New Towns’ alongside the Abercrombie Plan (1944) which envisaged moving a million and a half people from London with a similar plan conceived for Scotland. Behind both was a desire to stop the haphazard urban sprawl of cities into so-called ‘green-belt’ land. For Jonathan Glancey, one of Britain’s foremost architectural writers, these new settlements - places like Basildon and Stevenage - became satellite towns, “Cockney Siberia’s”, where blitzed, smoggy Londoners were decamped without emotional or architectural compasses. Allied to this, a generation of Modernist and Brutalist buildings inspired by designers such as Corbusier were allowed to develop in both inner city and New Town sites. Corbusier’s solution of a ‘Machine Age’ was a form of Utopianism that was the antithesis of Howard’s. However, the wholesale rejection of these towns in the last forty years stressing their ‘soullessness’ and their ‘ugliness’ is an aesthetic criticism linked primarily to a false romantic past. In literature from Henry Fielding (mirrored in Gainsborough’s paintings and Victorian photography) onwards, the English village, framed in the light of enclosure and emparking and with its rigid but contented social hierarchies, has been reinterpreted for each successive wave of utopian planners. A motif of a thatched cottage, a village green and quiet is central to this myth.

For Owen Hatherly, a kind of grumpy, Marxist Pevsner, the obsession with ‘heritage’ is now part of the British psyche. In his view, Britain saw in the 1940s and 1950s, some of the most eager attempts to if not break with this stifling and constructed image then at least to bring it into a more contemporary reality. There were “impressive take-ups of Corbusier’s ideas for new spaces”. Part of Hatherley’s annoyance is that Modernism’s ideals were ultimately defeated by post-war economic failure. Towns like Crawley or Stevenage, intended to be self-sufficient (ironically like Letchworth) became just another part of the commuter belt. Architecturally diluted, they became motifs for ‘concreting over the countryside’ and in some cases developed their own micro-slums of unemployment and blight. Hatherley rightly points out that Corbusier’s plans for his own Utopian vision of the Ville Radieuse was that 95% of the town should be parkland with buildings set in them in irregular arrangements. Interpretations such as Harlow might be said to have failed, as they were neither one thing or another having to constantly expand for a commuter class and failing to be economically dynamic within a plummeting national economy. Comforting stereotypes of a bucolic England were used by Conservative commentators against a backdrop of the end of Empire. By 1992, the Development Corporations that had developed the New Towns offering a generation of safe, comfortable housing, long overdue since the Victorian slums, was abolished. Handicapped by their isolation from industry and finance New Towns have retrospectively been seen as partially successful and Milton Keynes specifically has been growing every year since its founding in the late 1960s.

Post-war architecture and planning was framed by the New Right as somehow ‘un-British’ and a disaster. Its demonisation led to a deregulation of planning laws and property speculation. The debate about moving city-dwellers to the countryside was neatly framed by Clive Aslet (a former editor or Country Life Magazine) who recently referred to the New Town of Milton Keynes as “22,000 acres of formerly good hunting land”.

The only New Town approved and built since the late 1960s has been Poundbury.

Poundbury’s buildings appear flimsy against a grey English summer sky. In Jubilee Court, an incongruous cast of Rodin’s Thinker looks miserable, slick with rain. A flag outside a shop selling mobility scooters battles bravely in the gusts. With little street signage (a design decision so as not to ruin sight-lines), I am quickly lost. Plunging through a back alleyway, I emerge into a Bath-like Georgian crescent in front of a small park with children playing football. The brickwork is pristine, unencumbered by memories. Surrounded by tarmac roads (not period paving stones) the street looks like it all might be on wheels. A prop.

In 1984, when Prince Charles stood up to address the 150th birthday party of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) he did so against the backdrop of the Thatcher government’s ideological assault on the state. Central planning and Modernism in particular seemed complicit in Britain’s decline. In his speech, Charles described a scheme by the architect Peter Ahrens for the towering extension to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. The scheme was cancelled. The RIBA website now politely refers to that speech as a “discourtesy to architectural history”. 

The cultural historian Patrick Wright has written much about political conscription of the past and he speaks of this period as an era of “Conservative authoritarianism… a strategy that would freeze the whole of social life over, raising a highly selective image of Britain”. Charles’s speech marked the start of a crusade to plan a town of 400 acres on Duchy of Cornwall land comprising 2,400 homes. His very own Utopia was to be marked by a traditional approach and saw the appointment of architect Leon Krier who insisted on narrow, serpentine roads (to calm traffic) and gravelled lanes to imitate his idea of an English village. Local stone was to be used throughout and the buildings were planned to a “human scale”, “respect(ing) … the English vernacular style”. The plan was for a high-density urban village’ and focussed on integrating privately owned homes and social housing. Poundbury was started in 1993 and shows no sign of stopping, currently expanding on two sides butted on a third by a rather rowdy council estate from the 1960s.

Through gaps in the houses - purposely built in a hazy pastiche of different styles - you catch a glimpse of rolling meadows bathed in light and shade as cloud shadows race across disorderly fields of corn and grass. An older landscape. 

All is not well in Poundbury however and newspapers periodically report residents’ complaints of poor finishing and craftwork. There are tensions too amongst residents. 

Kris Adams, 33, a short, bullish man with cropped hair is pushing a pram containing Ellie, 3, back to his girlfriend’s house. Underneath her sit a couple of packs of beer. He’s on a fortnight’s holiday from the boat-builder in Poole where he works. His forearms, thick like ropes, are covered in elaborate tattoos. “It’s a good place… yeah – nice – there’s no noise and no trouble”. He invites me to meet his partner. Hayley Hawks, a young-looking 26 year old, who stands leaning at the door of their mock Georgian terrace in one of the public housing homes on the estate. Behind her, three tiny children run about occasionally coming to the door to collect gravel for their Tonka toy truck. Her face is open, round and she seems rather perplexed to be here at all. She speaks in a soft burr and rolls her ‘R’s’ with the local accent. “I’ve been here two years now… when they first told me I had a place in Poundbury I didn’t know where it was and when I did get here, I got lost and no one seemed to know where my house was!” She remembers her first impressions: “I was like, ‘how do people watch telly’ because there were no satellite dishes and then I found out that Charles’ doesn’t want them on the sides of the houses so everything’s buried underground…”. “It is nice though” she says almost apologetically – “everyone says ‘Good Morning’ but…” and she hesitates, “it is quite… posh…” “’I’m like’… ‘I’m not supposed to be here – all these big arches an’ that – it all looks a bit imposing…” “It is a bit like Dorchester – a bit ‘Olde-Worlde’ an’ that – but Dorchester’s a big old Victorian town and this… this is new. I feel a bit out of place sometimes.”

“I think that the social housing is perceived as a bit of a problem by some people to be honest”. Maurice Allen, 70, is the Deputy chairman of the Poundbury Resident’s Association. A former Navy man with a Masters in Law and Nursing he has a kindly and careful demeanour. After moving to Poundbury five years ago from a tiny hamlet in the countryside (“we were into bee-keeping and playing golf”), he and his wife want to move on. “It’s a mixed housing development… partly privately owned… some of which are occupied by their owners and some purely bought for letting and then there are the social housing… it attracts different people for different reasons… I suppose this mirrors modern society.” We talk as a rather surly young waiter proffers coffee in a café attached to the Garden Centre. Stripped brick walls and local art. A painting - perhaps inspired by a Parisian holiday - stares down at us. In it, a woman in a state of undress gazes from a Beaux-Arts balcony, smoking. Artfully imagined and badly painted, it might be a metaphor for the town. “I think if you went into a normal English village with the grandeur of some of these homes, you wouldn’t expect to have some of these” and he pauses, “social classes – except perhaps as supporting local farmers; gamekeepers, whatever … and what you do find here is that because some of the people here are getting on a bit... that they do have these people coming in to do their cleaning … but they wouldn’t necessarily want them living next door to them … it's a bit social class-y if you like – it bothers some people: it doesn’t necessarily bother me – we just have to try and get them involved in some kind of community spirit and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t”.

For Emma Simes, 40, a local estate agent “…people are paying a lot of money and they expect exclusivity… prices for houses here are around £350,000 to £500,000. Rents are about £1,200 a month… it’s beautiful, elegant, upmarket and that’s important to the clientele…” 

That’s not necessarily the view of Innes Harrison, 46, who’s busy painting his parent’s letterbox. “You can’t plan a village so that it has heart and soul… but it does work for retired people. Every time Charles comes ‘round though, they have to clean off the graffiti”. He smiles at the thought. “On the quiet, there’s quite a lot of antagonism between the residents and the other Dorset people – they call it Toy-Town and the they think we’re stuck-up.”

For Jonathan Glancey, Poundbury “was a good idea at heart… and that’s what disappoints so many people because the reality lets it down.” 

A local train takes me to his tiny village across the flat, misty fields of Suffolk where a weak sun seems to fill all of the sky. In a fine book-lined drawing room with his chunky Basset hounds vying for attention he tells me that “It’s a place that you'd expect a Prince or a landed gent to come up with… It’s a suburb – it’s not a proper town… and when you get there, you find that it’s just actually a bit cheap and nasty – there’s artificial stone all over the place and some of the details don’t look any better than the stuff you get in B&Q.” The trouble for Glancey is that “as soon as you create an ‘ideal community’, it just goes wrong. All the towns that have survived over the years have been sprawling and messy in their own way and it’s the job of planners and architects to make sense of them. The moment you start saying you have a dream city – that’s what you have – a dream”. For him, successful towns all have a reason to exist beyond simply being nice places to live. That is inevitably trade and industry. “Shipbuilding didn’t just start on the Clyde by accident - things grow organically (and) the New Towns were on a hiding to nothing. They were intellectual constructs (albeit) from the best political motives.” “Look at Germany” he continues – “the most successful economy left in Europe – and its strength is manufacturing – and they moved on and moved forward: they make some of the best design-led products in the world and that gives town and cities that make these things great strength and identity – if you look at Munich…it's a BMW town but it's a whole identity… Stuttgart is a Mercedes Benz town – so these big modern cities are identified with things.”

“The Neoliberal economy has completely undermined traditional settlements and towns; here it has seen the destruction of traditional industries that were looked down on.” Cities for Glancey are like “neurological pathways” and build up over time like lacquer – for him, it’s why Letchworth has in a way failed because “the people who lived there were comfortably arty and middle class who didn’t need or want the modern world around them.” 

“This idea (that the Industrial revolution was a completely terrible thing) is Anglo Saxon – it’s not something you find very much in mainland Europe – certainly not in the Mediterranean where cities have always been the most important thing but if you go to Anglo-Saxon cultures – specifically to the UK and to the United States then you find this planned escapist fantasy.”

The latest incarnation of the Planned Development – the “latest fad” as he calls it - were the Eco-Towns: a New Labour initiative. “It was a total disaster… but it sounded right for the times ‘Oooh, environmental towns; carbon neutral’… but to build them meant gobbling up beautiful land so it fell at the first hurdle”. “The way Britain operates now – a privatised, political economy means that usual suspects – the same old developers would be doing the building… so if you looked beyond the spin it was just second-rate property development and you come back to (the fact that) there was no actual reason to build them.” A clearer solution for Glancey would have been to make existing towns and villages more environmentally stable but “you can’t do it if your economy is just one big retail based service-economy… very soon you’d end up with supermarkets, call centres, more distribution centres, more lorries – all the things that are antithetical to an idealised community.


The first thing that you see as you walk towards BedZed are the multi-coloured chimneys that might be mechanical cockscombs. The Beddington Zero Energy Development was designed by Bill Dunster working with the BioRegional Group and engineers Arup for the housing charity the Peabody Trust near Sutton, South London. There are 96 houses - 23 allocated for shared ownership, 10 for key-workers, 15 for low-income families and the rest sold on the open market. It styles itself as a ‘low-impact’ dwelling that might be called a planned community insomuch as those that live there are self-selecting, choosing to participate in a unique development. The estate is self-sufficient in energy running off its own waste and has won a slew of prizes for its design. There is a good deal of wooden cladding and metal balconies stretch across blocks. The houses are glass heavy but very well insulated with solar panels. As Owen Hatherley has it in his ‘A New Kind of Bleak’, “BedZed is a superior essay in the now-defunct Blairite idiom” and it has the appearance of perhaps a jolly business park. Its pedigree is the urban renewal discussions that led to the massive report “Towards an Urban Renaissance” in 1999 intended to stop cities sprawling and make them more enjoyable. “A place where there’d be trams running everywhere, birds singing in the trees and cappuccinos… well, some of that has happened but in a cheap way, because you know, this is Britain” laughs Jonathan Glancey. The truth is that BedZed screams ‘design’ and ‘sustainability’ and although it is a very clever advert for sustainable housing, residents have to commute into London to work which cancels any carbon emissions gain.

According to Simon Courage however, a resident and also the head of ‘sustainability initiatives’ for BioRegional, “I think that you don’t get all the way in one go.” For him there are many things that do work in BedZed. Primarily for him the development’s sense of community is key – “… the environmental stuff is excellent but as a person living here… I know my children can go out and play for hours – here I know 94 of my neighbours … we were fed up living in various London suburbs where we never said hello to anybody”. Currently involved in a complicated Right to Manage dispute with Peabody, Courage is looking with a few other leaseholders for the right to manage his block away from a centralised bureaucracy of the housing association; presumably the same bureaucracy that actively discouraged me from speaking to other residents but was happy to charge me £25 to take part in a guided public tour of the estate. Clearly, one can take the environment out of the Market but not vice-versa. That said, BedZed is a clever design response to a new kind of town but remains to all intents and purposes an advertisement for architects and an environmentalism that shouts ‘wind turbine’ very loudly. The sense of community engendered by its residents is however testament to a commitment to a shared way of life in micro-community that underpins the best utopias.


In the late twentieth century it became impossible to continue to tell the story of planned communities in the UK - realised or otherwise - without reference to the parlous state of planning and architecture against the backdrop of ferocious economic change. As deregulation in planning became the inevitable ideological result of new government, one ironically planned city, a dystopia, took shape to the East of London. Docklands - more famously, Canary Wharf, became the new home for rapacious Capital in a changing London. Immortalised in the 1980 film The Long Good Friday the overwhelming motif of the era is of a brutal gangster, Bob Hoskins, parading a corrupt policeman through the ruins of the once mighty London docks phrophesying a new city-within-a-city and the money it will make them both. How far from the dreams of Ebenezer Howard and the antithesis of the benevolent Capitalism of Cadbury and Lever.

Cities of the future, like the early Docklands experiment, will be increasingly ‘societies of control’ argues the French philosopher Gilles Deluze. According to Stephen Graham in his ‘Cities Under Seige’, governments deeply influenced by corporations now perceive cities as hotbeds of potential conflict and seek to dominate them by surveillance. The fear of cities, especially in the conservative American heartlands, speaks of a religious dissenting fervour (born partly from the English Revolution) and a suspicion of the metropolitan ability to bring difference together and synthesise new forms of living. If Deluze’s nightmarish projection is near then an antidote might well be the fluid, amorphous, Occupy movement birthed from a similar utopian tradition but proudly city-based. Indeed in England, the ideal of a small, planned community has never faltered and it is estimated, according to ‘Diggers and Dreamers’ (an authoritative guide to communal living), that hundreds of such settlements exist tucked away up and down the country. On a macro scale, the debate about planned communities has again surfaced with the resurrection of the largely discredited Eco-Town idea in the form of Northstowe, a proposal for a planned town in the Cambridgeshire (so-called), “Silicon Fen”. The town, which might take 20 years to build and eventually home 25,000 people, will be built on a golf course, farmland and a former airfield. However, it seems clear that it will be commuter-based and will be the work of developers and volume housebuilders. For government, it is a resurrection of the New Town idea without the taint of State Socialism. Both David Cameron and Grant Shapps, the current Housing Minister, have spoken admiringly of the Garden City Movement – conveniently ignoring its Left-leaning inspiration.

For John Lewis, the youthful Chief Executive of Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation, this timely endorsement is no surprise. Lewis cut his teeth expanding the New Town of Milton Keynes. “I think the essence of the Garden Cities that is appealing to thinking about planning new places is that what we don’t want is faceless housing estates – places where no-one can interact and enjoy being”. Lewis talks effusively about the (diluted) financial model that Howard bequeathed and how to ‘capture value’ from a development and funding that is self-generating. Currently, the Foundation rents its property in the town to businesses and reinvests those profits into Letchworth. “We have a small physiotherapy hospital that’s free for residents… a fantastic Art Deco cinema… a 13-mile leisure route around the town and a scheme for advising and building about the look of the town.” A strong advocate of ‘long-term management’ the Heritage Foundation is currently trying to set up an international Garden City Institute to draw together similarly inspired cities worldwide (there are so-called Garden Cities in France, Brazil and New Zealand) to draw on shared experiences. His latest discussions have been exchange visits with Chinese academics keen to understand how to build towns “between enormous cities and tiny settlements.”


While all current roads seem to lead to a Garden City, back in Poundbury, the sun has finally broken through. A swallow loops above the red brick, Neo- Classical double-garages. Hayley Hawks watches indulgently as her children burst and tumble into their front garden.

“To be honest” she says quietly, still leaning in the doorway “at the end of the day, I just want somewhere nice to live.”

©Stuart Freedman