Battle Over the Very First Green Belt at Letchworth

Inside Housing

Politicians want to create a new wave of garden cities to meet housing need. But the world’s first garden city is also looking to do its bit – much to some residents’ disappointment. Martin Hilditch investigates

A march through Letchworth, protesting against the potential building of 1,537 homes in the town

A march through Letchworth, protesting against the potential building of 1,537 homes in the town

Like the town they come from, Letchworth’s protestors are well-planned, orderly and peaceful.

Today, almost 300 people have braved the cold of a bleak midwinter morning to voice their displeasure at plans to build large numbers of homes in Letchworth, which is famous (in housing circles, at least) as the world’s first garden city.

The town has had its fair share of national attention in recent years, because the two main national political parties have been enthusing about building a new generation of garden cities to curb England’s growing housing crisis. Meanwhile, Letchworth – the granddaddy of them all – has been looking to deliver its own solution to the problem. But as today demonstrates, plans for a big expansion have proved controversial.

Locals gather to protest development that they see as a threat to the garden city dream

The group, wrapped up warmly in overcoats and anoraks, meets initially in the middle of the central square before marching in a circuit around the town centre. Police are forced to divert traffic away from the main streets as the protestors unveil placards and banners and stroll past bemused Saturday shoppers.

While the strength of feeling is obvious, this is the most genteel of demonstrations. Even some of the placards contain politely qualified demands, with one reading: ‘No more houses – without more infrastructure’.  Another precisely-worded complaint suggests that ‘You can’t get down the A1(M) now, never mind another 10,000 homes’.

Children clutch brightly coloured balloons stating simply ‘save Letchworth’s green belt ‘. Apart from one young boy distractedly banging a small plastic toy drum, there’s little noise other than the gentle background murmur of protestors chatting to each other as they walk.  If Marks and Spencer organised demos, this is what they would look like.

“Growth shall not lessen or destroy but ever add to its social opportunities, to its beauty, to its convenience.”

Just how big, though, are Letchworth’s plans for expansion? Do they risk jeopardising the original purpose of the garden city, as the protestors suggest? Or is the demonstration a symptom of a now middle-aged town unhappy with any threat to the status quo?

Letchworth’s status certainly plays a significant part in the debate (one protestor even carries a placard bearing the mildly-disapproving image of the town’s founder, Ebenezer Howard). The concept itself is fairly simple: the garden city would take all the best elements of the city – good employment prospects, relative wealth – and merge it with the best elements of country living, such as green space and affordability. It would be surrounded by an agricultural belt to help make it self-sufficient and prevent urban sprawl.

Founded in 1903, the town has always been proudly aware of its heritage. Even the JD Wetherspoon pub in its centre – the Three Magnets – is a reference to Mr Howard’s attempts to describe the differing attractions offered by the town, the countryside, and a hybrid of the two.

Leafy Letchworth

The house building plans which have upset some people would certainly see a large expansion of Letchworth, although this would be over a 20-year period.

“I really do think they are committing a crime. I see it as a destruction of the concept of the garden city.”

Sigi Dlabal, resident of Letchworth

The proposals come from North Hertfordshire District Council (NHDC), which is trying to pull together a local plan – as it is required to do by government – setting out the scale of development through to 2031 and the locations where it is proposing to deliver the homes. Its ‘preferred options’ consultation paper, published in late 2014, outlines plans for 1,537 new homes in Letchworth. Given that the 2011 census states the town currently contains 14,271 homes, this would boost the number of dwellings by more than 10%.

One proposed site in particular is drawing the protestors’ ire – green belt land to the north of an estate called the Grange, on which 1,000 of the homes would be built. This included 111 acres of agricultural land – 4.5% of the land currently farmed in Letchworth. Adding an interesting twist to the dynamics, the land is currently owned by Letchworth’s Heritage Foundation, the charitable foundation charged with preserving the garden city and running many town-wide services. The foundation, which is the target of much of the protestors’ anger, allowed the site to be considered for housing and agreed for it to be included in NHDC’s local planning process.

'Say no to overdevelopment,' reads one banner

Letchworth resident Sigi Dlabal, who moved to the town three years ago, says she thinks the Heritage Foundation is ‘in breach of what they were set up to protect’.

‘I really do think they are committing a crime,’ she states. ‘I see it as a destruction of the concept of the garden city.’

What is a garden city?

The principles defining garden cities were initially set out by Ebenezer Howard in 1898 and sought to mesh the best elements of town and country life, such as good employment and communications, and healthy and affordable living. The first garden city – Letchworth – was founded in 1903, with Welwyn following in 1922.

Unveiling plans for a new generation of locally-led garden cities last year, the government suggested they should be new settlements that contain high-quality design, accessible green space and good infrastructure.

Ms Dlabal, who despite the obvious strength of her feeling and words is incredibly friendly and speaks in a thoughtful and considered tone, adds that in her view the town should have ‘UNESCO heritage status’.

‘The Heritage Foundation was set up to protect the heritage,’ she adds. ‘The heritage is the town with the green belt around it.’

There are ‘tonnes of brownfield sites’ in Letchworth that should be built on instead, she adds, pointing me to her Facebook page which details other options including a site of disused office blocks.

’The sites need to be cleared,’ she admits. ‘A lot of them are contaminated but you need to do it for the next generation. Instead of building 1,000 houses on one site, why can’t you build 100 houses on 10 sites?’

Mum-of-two Stacey Slattery has also turned out for the protest. She lives on the Grange and her home backs on to the proposed 1,000-home site. She says she’s opposed to the development for a number of reasons, including the environmental impact and the likely effect on Letchworth’s already overstretched health service and schools.

Ms Slattery is not opposed to any development, but says putting 1,000 homes on the site bordering the Grange feels like far too many.

‘I have always thought I have been very lucky and I have always thought it [her view] would go – but not to something on this scale,’ she adds.

“It is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for middle-income households to buy in Letchworth.”

She says she worries more about the impact on her children in the immediate to medium-term future – in terms of pressure on school places and loss of green space – than the longer-term housing options.

‘I don’t think long-term because you just don’t know what the world will be like,’ she adds. ‘Trying to get on the housing ladder is a nightmare now, so I imagine that will be more difficult, but I don’t worry too much about that. I’m a here and now person.’

A few days after the protest, I speak with Nick Wright, head of development with Letchworth-based North Hertfordshire Homes. He is a firm supporter of development on the Grange site. Mr Wright speaks as passionately as any of the protestors about why he thinks the site should be built on, saying prices are currently ‘sky-rocketing’ in the town.

‘It is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for middle-income households to buy in Letchworth,’ he states. ‘You are certainly looking at £300,000-400,000 for an ordinary three-bedroom, semi-detached house that is nothing particularly special.

Letchworth protest

‘Our concern is that if the houses aren’t built, then that affordability situation will get worse and worse and worse,’ he adds. ‘And where do future generations live? Where do young people who aspire to live in the town they were born in go if there is no building?’

Mr Wright says he doesn’t see any alternative to building on the Grange site and that the council has tried to include as many brownfield sites as it is realistically possible to bring forward in the plan period.

‘I think that the council is right and the Heritage Foundation is right that it is worth, over 30 years, sacrificing a relatively small level of green belt. The alternative is that Letchworth becomes pickled in aspic. You are saying to your sons and daughters: “Move 20 miles to the north”.’

Pros and cons

Another Letchworth resident wrestling with these issues is David Levett, portfolio holder for planning and enterprise for NHDC. The Conservative councillor, who lives in a social rented home owned by North Hertfordshire Homes, is a staunch defender of the current approach, although acknowledging that it is not perfect. He says that at least 40% of the homes on any new development will be affordable – and at least half of these should be affordable rented homes for local families.

This is an issue that is close to Mr Levett’s heart. One of his four children currently lives in private rented accommodation ‘in what was formerly a council house’ because she doesn’t want to move away but can’t afford to buy.

‘Because she is adequately housed she doesn’t meet the need to go on the social housing waiting list,’ he adds. Mr Levett says he thinks that the whole country’s attitude to housing needs to change, if we are to start meeting needs effectively.

‘It is our attitude to property as an investment [that needs to change],’ he states. ‘We don’t think of it as a home.’ His daughter’s home, for example, was ‘bought by the owner [under Right to Buy] who now rents it out at a private rent that isn’t cheap’, he states, adding that he disagrees with the Right to Buy policy. I bump into him after a meeting in which he reveals his reason for backing for the current approach in Letchworth. ‘We’re not doing it really for our own children,’ he states. ‘But it is the grandchildren you think of.’

Mr Levett acknowledges that many protestors think that more could be done to bring forward brownfield sites. But he says the only sites that can be included in the local plan – if it is to pass inspection – are ones that are clearly deliverable. If landowners don’t want to bring other parcels of land forward, there is little that can be done to force them, he adds. The council can’t use compulsory purchase powers because this could only be legally justified if there aren’t viable alternatives available to meet need, he states.

'Hands off our garden city'

He stresses that including the site in the local plan is not the same as a planning application and that any developer who did submit a proposal would have to address issues such as the impact on green space, schools and healthcare.

The Heritage Foundation didn’t want to make a new comment when approached. But it pointed to a previous statement issued by its chair, Colin Chatfield, last May when it decided the land north of the Grange should be included.

At the time, he said that using brownfield sites would have been preferable but ‘unfortunately does not address the demand’. The foundation had received a 1,000 signature petition against the plans, he added, which focused on the loss of green belt land.

He added that the decision had been made ‘with the future of the town in mind’.

As ever, these are all tensions that the visionary Mr Howard had anticipated. In his book, Garden Cities of Tomorrow, he raises the possibility that the garden city will one day build on the zone of agricultural land around its edge ‘and thus for ever destroy its right to be called a “garden city”’.

This would not happen, Mr Howard thought, because the land will not be ‘in the hands of private individuals’ but administered in the interests of the whole community. But he adds that this should not mean that the inhabitants prevent growth and ‘thus preclude many from enjoying its advantages’.

‘The town will grow,’ he adds. ‘But it will grow in accordance with a principle that will result in this – that such growth shall not lessen or destroy but ever add to its social opportunities, to its beauty, to its convenience.’

Looking forward

Based on this it would appear that the protestors are absolutely right that they are engaged in an argument about what defines life in a garden city. But the answer is far less straightforward than it might appear. Mr Howard certainly intended expansion to be controlled and carried out for the right reasons – but he was not anti-growth and also wanted as many people as possible to experience the benefits of life in his utopia.

Given that the consultation on NHDC’s local plan preferred options has only just closed, the arguments in Letchworth are set to continue throughout 2015. But as the Conservatives and Labour parties look to garden cities to solve the nation’s housing problems, a fundamental debate about what they should look like is happening under their noses in a small town in Hertfordshire. And what could be more fitting? After all, that’s how it all started.

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