Politicians discussing garden suburbs and cities at next week’s Conservative conference would do well to look further than London and Hertfordshire

Jones Lang LaSalle

At the Conservative conference next week in Birmingham, there will undoubtedly be talk about ‘Garden Cities’. Many delegates, however, may be unaware that the city was host to the first ever conference on the topic, over 110 years ago. Appropriately, this took place in Bournville, the garden suburb created by George Cadbury, the Quaker entrepreneur, when he moved his factory from the centre of the city to its outskirts.

Much of the recent publicity around Garden Cities has focused on Letchworth and Hampstead, and the innovations of Ebenezer Howard. This is perhaps understandable - as well as being the models promoted by the skilled lobbyists at the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), the former also happened to be in Grant Shapps’ constituency.

One would hope, though, that those advocating a return to the principles of Ebenezer Howard would take time to visit Bournville. After all, it predates Letchworth by almost a decade, and represents perhaps its most significant influence. The roots of the architectural styles and layouts can be found here - and for those who know Birmingham’s history, this is not surprising. For unlike Manchester, say, this was a city of skilled craftsmen working in a “thousand trades” in small workshops; one of the reasons it created the country’s first municipal art school.

William Morris’s News from Nowhere - which envisaged hated London swept from the earth and replaced with a new civilisation based around crafts and gardening - was a clear influence on Howard. Morris was a regular visitor to Birmingham, often visiting the home of his university friend, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. He went on to become one of the first Presidents of the municipal art school, and his Arts and Crafts vision, which was so influential on the whole Garden City movement, embedded itself at the institution. The architect of Bournville, William Alexander Harvey, was a product of the school - and its influence is clear, both in its styles and those of the later Garden Cities which it so influenced.

One of the great misunderstandings about Bournville is that is was a ‘model factory town’, like Port Sunlight, reserved for workers. This is not true - from the beginning around half of the dwellings were let or sold to non-employees. Cadbury - who famously thought chocolate would wean the working classes off drink - was a social visionary. Bournville was his example of what could be achieved and how ordinary people could be housed; it was an example he wanted others to follow. It is a real shame that the project is not given enough credit for the seminal role it had in creating the Garden City movement.

Birmingham reformers such as Cadbury were heir to the ‘civic gospel’ of the late Victorian period, when the city had become known as the ‘best governed city in the world’. Other nonconformists such as Joseph Chamberlain - who later helped create the modern Conservative party - secured gas and water supplies, demolished slums, built urban boulevards and squares, extended the city’s tram network and opened networks of board schools. A tight knot of nonconformist families, who all lived in the remarkably grand and remarkably central neighbourhood of Edgbaston (also, at times, described as a ‘garden suburb’), were infused with a zeal to improve the lives of ordinary workers. (Some of the delegates are likely to visit Edgbaston if they leave the city centre; it is home to two of Birmngham’s three Michelin-starred restaurants).

Birmingham, contrary to its image, has some of the leafiest, most spacious suburbs in the country

Bournville is not the only example that delegates should visit if they are really interested in garden suburbs and cities. Just to the south of Edgbaston lies the Moor Pool Estate, or the Harborne Tenants’ Garden Suburb, which was built around the same time as Hampstead (although it is smaller). Sharing the principles of garden city design, it was a cooperative venture triggered by a man called John Sutton Nettlefold, who was both Chamberlain’s nephew and the chair of the housing committee, as well as being the ‘N’ in engineering firm GKN. He wanted to apply the civic gospel of the city to the task of improving the housing stock; his book ‘Practical Housing’ begins with the quote; “The problem of the last generation was to provide gas and water; the problem of the next is to provide light and air.”

Nettlefold had visited German cities and seen how they were extending towns using planning schemes. This was a time when there was great anxiety about the rise of German industry - as well as the poor health of so many British city dwellers, which had been revealed by the profound difficulties there had been in finding suitable conscripts for the Boer War. Nettlefold wanted to introduce these schemes in this country, albeit with the apartment block replaced by the garden city aesthetic. Harborne was his template - it was an ‘Edgbaston for the working man’. Incidentally, he wanted this to be achieved through private enterprise; he was opposed to the municipal housing programmes being pioneered in cities such as Liverpool.

Nettlefold went on to write the 1909 town planning act - the first ever in Britain. This allowed cities to draw up planning schemes to allow their expansion to occur in a more controlled way. Two of the first three to be approved were in then-booming Birmingham. Although these measures were not completely successful, lacking much in the way of compulsion, they are one reason why the city, contrary to its image, has some of the leafiest, most spacious suburbs in the country. To me, Nettlefold’s vision has much in common with what needs to be done today, in cities such as Cambridge; it seems a more appropriate route than building separate garden cities as new settlements. As evidence from the continent shows, sustainable extensions to existing cities are the most appropriate way to provide large amounts of new housing.

This, by the way, is just one strand to the story. According to a poster I have found from the 1900s, the ‘Co-Partnership Tenant Societies’ boasts, in 1909, of estates in Ealing, Sevenoaks, Leicester, Manchester, Wolverhampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Wayford and Keswick, as well as Letchworth Garden City, Hampstead and Harborne. Perhaps it is time to look carefully at these other examples, and what they could teach us, rather than returning endlessly to Hertfordshire and North London?

Jon Neale is residential research director at Jones Lang LaSalle