Letchworth
‘Far from being a city, Letchworth was in fact a large village,’ writes David Robson. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian

In discussing the development of Ebbsfleet (A city of dreams, G2, 2 October), Patrick Barkham avoided engaging in real quantitative terms with the question of “density”. When we bandy around terms like “low-density”, what does this mean? How low is low? When is high too high? What is the optimal range of densities for new peri-urban housing?

Letchworth, planned by Parker and Unwin in 1906, was built to densities that were half those proposed in Ebenezer Howard’s original theoretical blueprint “Tomorrow” of 1898. Far from being a city, Letchworth was in fact a large village. Unwin set out his arguments in favour of lower-density development in his 1912 pamphlet “Nothing gained by overcrowding”. Later, as a co-author of the 1919 Tudor Walters report, he helped to formulate the notional limit of 30 dwellings per hectare which would shape suburban housing development in Britain throughout the 20th century.

The new towns of the postwar period were also infected by Unwinism and were built to unsustainably low densities, with land being wasted in over-large plots and purposeless areas of open space. Milton Keynes, trumpeted as a city, is in fact one huge garden suburb crisscrossed by featureless motorways; it is the ultimate no-place, consuming huge swaths of land while failing to establish any sense of urbanity.

Lower densities obviously use more land, but they also increase infrastructure and energy costs, reduce the viability of public transport, and encourage greater reliance on private cars. Just as significantly, by reducing propinquity, they discourage social cohesion and fail to establish the critical mass which is a prerequisite for urban living. Our history provides us with more viable models for urban housing: the Georgian town and the Victorian suburb were both built, successfully, to densities of over 50 dwellings per hectare.

We ignore the fact that we live in the most densely populated country in Europe and that land, particularly in the south-east, is a precious commodity. If we are going to build garden cities, let the emphasis be on “city” rather than “garden”, and let’s build them to sustainable densities.
David Robson
Hove, East Sussex

• Garden cities are not and never were the housing paradise. I was born in Welwyn Garden City in 1950, and although I remember it as a spacious and green environment, I also remember all too well how the population demographic was “controlled” by the way it was laid out. On the west side were all the privately owned houses, set in nice streets with driveways and garages and lovely tree-planting – still beautiful today. On the east were all the council houses with no garages or driveways, and all the factories. White- and blue-collar workers were deliberately kept separate from each other through the planning process.

One man’s “garden” was another man’s “factory chimney”. Let us not delude ourselves about how wonderful these places were, nor think that the same concept would potentially work any better today.
Carol Hedges
Harpenden, Hertfordshire

• Patrick Barkham quotes a Jeff Harvey as saying that Ebbsfleet is a name made up by Eurostar. As a native of Northfleet, I can remember my mother, over 60 years ago, taking us to Ebbsfleet to see my uncle, who was the head groundsman at the Blue Circle Cement sports club there.
Joanna Rodgers
London

• Congratulations to Nick Clegg for his really imaginative thinking regarding the possible location of new garden cities (Clegg pledges to build a string of new towns along the ‘brainbelt of Britain’, 6 October). We now need some joined-up thinking about how the proposed Oxford to Cambridge axis would then impact on HS2 and the siting of a future new national airport – housing, job creation and transport all being considered together. As well as radically improving the business case for HS2, we now have the beginnings of a national infrastructure plan that could benefit parts of the UK other than just London and the south-east.
Robert Oak
Shrewsbury, Shropshire

• As a former Winchester city councillor with an interest in planning, I’ve always thought that the term “affordable” when applied to properties for let was meaningless and should be scrapped. Boris Johnson’s approval of flats at a monthly rent of £2,800 (Report, 3 October) comes as no surprise to those of us living in Winchester, where house prices and rents have risen dramatically in recent years, given the knock-on effect of our proximity to London. Many people have no choice these days but to rent privately, but now that even “affordable” rents can be up to 80% of commercial rents, many essential workers and young people are driven out.

While we leave provision of housing and infrastructure up to private developers, we will never solve the problem. The bottom line for developers is profit, and with the planning legislation weighted in their favour, they run rings around councils too frightened of appeals and costs to refuse applications. “Viability” is the name of the developers’ game and is increasingly and creatively used as a means to avoid building even the unaffordable “affordable” housing. I will vote for any party committed to controlling private rents and giving local authorities the power to raise funds for acquisition of prime sites for council housing. Response from Ed Miliband would be welcome.
Karen Barratt
Winchester, Hampshire

• Unfortunately, it’s not only Boris Johnson who thinks four-figure monthly rents are “affordable”. Peabody, a charity whose founding purpose is to “ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy” in London, is also advertising homes on the key-worker estates it bought from the crown estate in 2011 at “affordable” rents that no key worker can afford. Effective campaigning by tenants prevented some 1,500 homes falling into the hands of private developers and secured a promise from Peabody’s chief executive, Steve Howlett, that he was “absolutely committed to keeping these homes affordable”. In fact a “market valuation” was immediately undertaken and rents then pegged at 60%-80% of these absurd levels, resulting in tenants seeing increases of up to 36% over three years while their wages remain static and living costs rise.

With a two-bedroom flat now costing up to £1,470 a month in rent, vacant homes are remaining empty and unlet for months while nurses, firefighters and teachers, as well as pensioners, are being quietly but inexorably priced out of their homes and boroughs. Residents’ representatives are now seeing cases of working families cutting back on essentials, or having to visit food banks, in order to pay the rents charged by this apparently philanthropic organisation. We call upon Peabody, which recently reported a £291m surplus, to scrap this ludicrous rent model and honour its commitments to us and to its founding principles. Readers can sign our petition at tinyurl.com/nb7oum5
Joannie Andrews, Julie Bragagnini, Madeleine Davis, Terry Harper
Chairs of the former crown estate residents’ associations

• The letter above from David Robson was amended on 10 October 2014. An earlier version referred to “30 dwellings per acre” where “30 dwellings per hectare” was meant.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/oct/08/housing-policy-failures-garden-cities-affordable-rents