WGC100 - Off the Fence Article

Off the Fence

Welwyn Garden City Centenary Foundation
Let’s cast our minds back before the Atlee Government’s Town and Country Planning Act 1947.

There were regulations about the use of land to protect public health and to promote agricultural advancement, but the need for ‘planning permission’ did not exist.

Having privately published his book To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform in 1898, and seen it enthusiastically taken up and commercially re-printed in 1899, Ebenezer ‘Ben’ Howard had been delighted so quickly to have gained influential supporters in all walks of life, and to see the foundation of a powerful and influential fan club – the Garden City Association(GCA), which much later became the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA).

Even though the propogandist GCA had set up a Garden City Pioneer Company in 1902 to focus on finding a site for the first demonstration project (they were homing in on the Chartley Castle Estatein Staffordshire after visits to sites in Warwickshire, Essex and Nottinghamshire), they were alerted at short notice to an auction of farmland in Hertfordshire, and successfully bid for land for what was to become Letchworth Garden City. The more wealthy backers of the GCA assembled the money to honour the auction bid.

While there was no planning system to constrain the Company in acquiring land and declaring it to before a proposed Garden City, there was no planning system to protect potentially competing neighbouring land from market forces, so further land had to be bought by subterfuge before the project could be announced formally in October 1903 by First Garden City Limited.

Progress was painfully slow. Raising soft development loans was as difficult as it is now, and the Company was under financial stress. It was also strained from the tensions between the pioneer purists and the development pragmatists, from press scrutiny (often hostile or mocking), and from a degree of agitation that their master planner Raymond Unwin so quickly won a commission simultaneously to plan a much more grand ‘competitor’ scheme in the same vector of Outer London, at Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Less than 20 years later, and after the First WorldWar, came Welwyn, the second Garden City. TheGCA (by then renamed as the Garden Cities and Town Planning Association) was rapidly gaining international recognition, and major conferences and publications focused on the progress at Letchworth.The argument became focused on the need for government to take up the Garden City invention(as Howard called it) and embark on a major national programme. ‘Land Fit for Heroes’ put breeze in the sails of the campaign, but the government prevaricated and – after huge lobbying – only went so far as to enable local authorities to acquire land for the purpose if they wished. Weak, buck passing. Rather like government policy on the subject today.

Howard (now 70) was impatient, saying ‘if you wait for the authorities to build new towns you will be older than Methusala before they start, and declared he would find a second site himself. He had already been in (fruitless) correspondence with Lord Salisbury to try to persuade the reluctant gent to sell land for a second Garden City, and so had been looking at the area around the Hatfield House Estate in broad terms.

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