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The folly of garden cities

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

House in the Country: Where Our Suburbs and Garden Cities Came From and Why It’s Time to Leave Them Behind Simon Matthews

Oldcastle Books, pp.256, 19.99

In his 1981 autobiography A Better Class of Person, the playwright John Osborne described an encounter he’d recently had with an actor who’d bought a house in Finlay Street, Fulham for £15,000. Osborne, having lived on the same street in the 1930s when properties there changed hands for £300, was astonished by the sum. Yet, as Simon Matthews notes in House in the Country, £15,000 was then only 3.5-3.75 times the average national earnings, while to buy a house on Finlay Street today you’d need £2,136,667 – which works out at 69 times the current average annual salary. In the light of the government’s recent proposal of a ‘benefits to bricks’ scheme to ‘reinvigorate the council housing Right to Buy programme’, this book is timely, offering a decent primer on how we’ve ended up where we are when it comes to housing.

Matthews begins his survey in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, when food riots erupted over the inflated price of grain in Ely and Littleport in Cambridgeshire. He ends by considering issues such as land registers and government subsidies to stimulate a rebirth of the kind of social housing provisions that successive Conservative and Labour postwar governments were committed to before 1979. Along the way, he examines the emergence of paternalistic model villages like Saltaire and Port Sunlight, and philanthropic urban estates sponsored by the American banker George Peabody. The first of these estates was built in Shoreditch in 1863, followed two years later by the first local authority-owned housing in the UK in the form of Corporation Buildings on Farringdon Road.

Matthews is concerned about the general turn against inner-city dwelling in Britain in the late Victorian period and into the 20th century. He argues that a view took hold, propagated by house builders of varying stripes and public intellectuals such as John Ruskin and William Morris, that it was ‘better to leave high-density urban environments and reside in properly planned semi-rural (or suburban) locations’. Such sentiments ultimately resulted in a boom for developer-led Tudorbethan estates, and their legacy is that environmentally unsustainable semi-detached suburban homes which will never answer our housing needs continue to be proposed and built. The Chinese city of Shenzhen, which is 50 per cent denser than London, is more to his taste.

Matthews’s bête noire is Ebenezer Howard, the London-born parliamentary stenographer and Congregationalist whose 1898 book Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform was republished four years later as Garden Cities of Tomorrow and formed the basis for the development of Letchworth in 1905 and Welwyn Garden City in 1920. To a certain extent, House in the Country becomes a kind of protracted tussle with Howard and his utopian theories. Matthews believes that Howard and his many associates and disciples, especially Frederic Osborn, the chairman of the Town and Planning Association and assiduous lobbyist for the creation of new towns after the second world war, have had a thoroughly malign influence on British housing policy for the past 100-odd years.

Howard was referred to as ‘Ebenezer, the garden city geyser’ by George Bernard Shaw. The playwright was a fellow member of the Zetetical Society and one of the more vocal critics of Howard’s schemes in the free-thinking circles in which both men moved. All said and done, he appears an ‘otherworldly crank’, to use Orwell’s preferred term. He served briefly as the personal secretary to the bombastic Victorian preacher and phrenologist Joseph Parker, who imbued him with a sense of religious destiny after reading his head and instructing him to become a preacher. But weak lungs took him instead to America, initially to a smallholding in Nebraska to live off the land. When that failed he dusted off his shorthand and moved to Chicago, which was then known as ‘the garden city’, after its greening up in the reconstruction following the great fire of 1871. There, in 1876, he had a memorable encounter with the popular spiritualist Cora Tappan, who said she saw him at the ‘centre of a series of circles working at something which will be of great service to humanity’.

It is likely that while in Chicago Howard knew about the American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his English partner, Calvert Vaux, and their plans for Riverside. This was to be America’s first purpose-built commuter suburb, spaciously laid out beyond Chicago’s inner-city grid on a two-square-mile area of land along the Des Plaines River. But one of the greatest influences on Howard’s subsequent thinking was a work of science fiction: Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. A utopian portrait of a futuristic Boston in 2000, it roused William Morris to pen his medievalist alternative, News From Nowhere, as a riposte. Howard was no less a romantic visionary, and on paper his basic outline was almost wholly impractical. But there were many idealists back then. Matthews notes that in 1907 Howard treated a delegation from that year’s Esperanto conference to a tour of Letchworth.

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