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Why building a new garden city at Ebbsfleet is a terrible idea

17 March 2014

9:52 AM

17 March 2014

9:52 AM

So, the government plans to create a new ‘garden city’ in Ebbsfleet, Kent, with 15,000 new homes. Yesterday’s announcement by George Osborne has been widely praised. The local Tory MP is enthusiastic. Boris Johnson tweets that it’s ‘great news.’ The best critique Ed Balls can muster is that it’s all ‘too little, too late.’ Labour wants 200,000 ‘new homes’ (that emotive mantra) per year by the end of the decade. I don’t live in Kent. This garden city isn’t in my back yard. So why, when I heard this news, did my sentimental heart sink?

‘New homes’ is such a sly use of words. How could anyone be against new homes? What this phrase really means, of course, is lots and lots of brand new houses. However the term that makes me despair is ‘garden city’. Have you ever heard such a contradiction in terms? A garden is not a city. A city is not a garden. And far from being a modern solution to a modern overcrowding problem, this misguided concept is actually an Edwardian notion, dreamt up when Britain’s urban poor still lived in squalid back-to-backs.


The idea of garden cities was conceived by Sir Ebenezer Howard, a social reformer born way back in 1850. Howard’s day job was working for Hansard, but, like a lot of well-meaning, wrong-headed Edwardians, he harboured daydreams of utopia. He travelled to the New World. He read Emerson and Walt Whitman (always a dangerous thing to do). In 1898, he published To-Morrow – A Peaceful Path To Real Reform, republished in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-Morrow. Garden Cities of To-Morrow argued that there were three main ‘magnets’ of population: town (‘closing out of nature, social opportunity’); country (‘lack of society, beauty of nature’) and Howard’s own pet project, town-country: ‘beauty of nature, social opportunity, fields and parks of easy access, low rents, high wages, low rates…’ And so on.

Howard had a hand in England’s first garden city, Letchworth, built after the First World War. Visiting Letchworth today, a century later, its inherent flaws are clear to see. The original conurbation is pleasant, and still works, after a fashion, but, fatally, Howard’s utopian vision predated the mass production of the automobile. His Garden City is now enveloped by a bland hinterland, neither town nor country, dominated by the motor car. Visit Stevenage, built after the Second World War, and it’s the same story. The place is carved apart by roads and roundabouts. It’s almost impossible to walk around. The public spaces seem anonymous. The only bit that works at street level is the historic old town at its centre. Stevenage’s new garden city hasn’t grown organically, like our ancient towns and cities. It’s been superimposed.

Like Howard, one hundred years ago, Osborne envisages a rail hub for his garden city, the ‘fantastic infrastructure’ of the local high speed line (expect lots of ghastly future garden cities, all along the new high speed line from London to Birmingham and beyond). Yet sadly, like Ebenezer Howard, Osborne’s high speed utopia is powerless against the motor car. Rail travel may work for trendy urbanites, but for the aspirational folk who dream of a detached box house (sorry, ‘home’) in Ebbsfleet, two cars in the drive (his ‘n’ hers) is a key part of the petty bourgeois package. Britain’s latest garden city may start off as a tidy post-industrial paradise, but it will end up like all garden cities – an island of planned housing in an ocean of suburban sprawl.

William Cook also writes for the Independent and Conde Nast Traveller. His latest book, One Leg Too Few – The Adventures of Peter Cook & Dudley Moore, is published in paperback by Arrow in May.

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Show comments
  • ButcombeMan

    Stevenage is brutally poor quality buildings and design. Cheap.

    Letchworth works reasonably well still, as you say.

    I note you do not mention Welwyn, much to be preferred to either. Maybe you did not mention it because it does not quite fit your case?.

    Ebbsfleet should have a local tram transport system built in.

  • Kasperlos

    Few ask why the need for more planned mega housing estates when there are enough empty dwellings which could house all of Britain’s homeless and those willing to rent or buy them. True, many of the homes are not in areas where people might want to go due to lack of employment opportunity. Still, Britain’s early 21st century gold rush in housing is rather odd considering its age and development. How did this all happen in a country that, left alone to natural birth and deaths, the country would have no problems with housing its populous. But with unfettered migration from across the globe into a small island nation we know why. Britain is not a young country just starting off in the industrial or technology revolutions, it has lost much, if not most, of its manufacturing base. So where is this ‘housing shortage’ coming from, what is the cause? The influx of enormous sums of cash from abroad – no questions asked as to where it came from, thank you very much – is pumping up the construction industry is one answer. Add to the mix the skewed finance dynamics, thanks to the grey shoes in the City, and hence a housing crunch. The gnomes love central planning artificial population increases which drives up demand and prices. It’s a bubble inflated by the 1 percent who just can’t get enough if the entire universe were handed them on a platter. England, at least, is destined to become one enormous housing estate with little thought or concern as to where the food will come from or where one might enjoy a quiet moment alone in nature.

  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    Why is this news. Garden City? 15,000 homes?
    So Ebbsfleet is essence a similar size (if not larger) than the Elbs Fleet project in Hamburg? Your visual would suggest that that’s an outright lie.

  • pp22pp

    You cannot build your way out of an open-door immigration policy until the standard of living in Britain is so low than not even Somalis want to live here. Duh!

  • justejudexultionis

    FFS why can’t you just build UP like they do in just about every other country? Cities like Edinburgh and Paris achieve higher population densities with five to seven storey apartment buildings. We cannot afford more urban sprawl on this crowded island.

    • HJ777

      You are completely correct.

      Our housing estates are low density, low rise and bland. Low density increases the need for car travel and the congestion that creates.

      Well-planned high density housing (as currently not allowed by building regulations) is the way forward. The areas in London with the highest density populations are generally the most sought-after!

  • Mr Creosote

    Of course it won’t be a “garden city”. It will be a giant housing estate, indistinguishable from any other, only on a vast, faceless scale.

    And the next one?…How about Gaydon, in prime Warwickshire countryside on the M40, to include an HS2 station. They’re already thinking about dumping 3000 houses there so why not go the whole hog and build a new international airport? This ticks all the new infrastructure boxes in one hit + the Govt already own 2500 acres of land at the army base…just a thought!

    • BarkingAtTreehuggers

      The scale of unimaginable levels of unimaginative sub-urban mediocrity will aptly counterbalance the pseudo-urban bedsit-like quality of low spec finishes as seen in the Olympic Village, you say?

  • rtj1211

    So you propose to build houses where rail services are already at breaking point instead, do you? Or where there aren’t any at all??

  • chrisd87

    Question to the author – what should be done by way of an alternative,
    then? Many people (who you derisively allude to in your piece) don’t want to live in tiny, high-rise, high-density flats with no parking.

    My main worry is that this won’t be a garden city at all, that just being an attractive name used by politicians and salesmen, but instead a warren of typical modern high-density housing estates. One of the fundamental characteristics of garden cities, as originally envisaged, was that they were primarily low-density (no more than 12 houses per acre), in order that people could have decent sized gardens and plenty of space.

    • rtj1211

      No chance of decent gardens and plenty of space in the SE with all the population increases.

      Try the Northern Hinterland of Hull if you want that…….

      • chrisd87

        There’s far more space than many would have you believe (although granted, much less than oop north), it’s just that current policy doesn’t allow it to be built on.

    • HJ777

      It is the low density stipulation in current planning regulations that produces small, bland, houses on dreary estates. This low density housing mitigates against local provision of services and necessitates car travel – creating congestion. It is not high density!

      Other countries in Europe build much more attractive, but also much higher density, housing. We build the smallest floor area homes in Europe.

      Think of London – most of the highest density housing areas are the most desirable!

  • kle4

    The real problem will be where will they build the next one we need, or the one after that? For all it may end up having problems, if they can just manage to build the darn thing at Ebbsfleet that will be close to a miracle given how delayed and obstructed large planning projects are subject to on nearly every occasion, for good and ill. One people can handle, but each new one that is needed will be harder and harder to get done, so just go ahead and build this one quick even if there are concerns.

    • rtj1211

      Unfortunately the selfish NIMBYism doesn’t promote overall wealth. It promotes seclusion into old age for people who are no longer the future…..

  • FrankS2

    Ebbsfleet Garden City may well become the Venice of North Kent – the site is a high risk flood plain. Even the “petty bourgeois” inhabitants that the writer envisages may balk at that.

    • rtj1211

      Well perhaps the construction folks can learn from Indonesians about how to built houses on stilts, eh?? Or would that eat into their profits??

    • Chris Kimberley

      seems bonkers, sea levels are rising so long term its a terrible location

  • tjamesjones

    I understood that Ebenezer’s vision was that people would live & work in his garden cities. So what killed his original idea is that it ended up as a commuter town serving London. Whether the commute is by car or (more likely?) train, in either case the garden city became a suburb. But there are worse fates, most people’s aspiration is best satisfied through suburban living – it wasn’t what Ebenezer planned but was it a mistake to build Letchworth? I’m not sure it was. Perhaps at Ebbsfleet, given that the intention is to build a suburb, they might do an even better job. I don’t really get the car point – who wants to commute into London by car?

    • rtj1211

      I agree with you. Obviously every proposal depends on the details, but the principle is a good one.

    • Dodgy Geezer

      …most people’s aspiration is best satisfied through suburban living…

      Apropos of nothing in particular, I am reminded of the English merchant Alexander Hare (1775–1834), who petitioned Stamford Raffles for some land and obtained a fair chunk of Borneo around 1810. Here he lived with some 40 Malay concubines until ousted by an outraged British establishment, and he was forced to wander around the Southern Hemisphere, finally setting up his court in the Cocos Islands…

      I don’t know what his mother-in-law problems were like, but I have occasionally wondered how he managed all the luggage…

      • tjamesjones

        Yes, even had it been available, I’m not sure Letchworth Garden city would have done it for A Hare.

        • Dodgy Geezer

          You mean apart from the difficulty in finding 40 virgins..?