Let's get garden cities recognised, by Graeme Bell

Time for the Christmas Quiz! (It's just over a month away, after all.) What do the following have in common? Saltaire, the Great Barrier Reef and the City of Bath?

If you guessed that they are all outstanding examples of natural or cultural features then you're right. If you guessed they are all World Heritage Sites, then you've won the crate of beer. Out of a global list of just over 1,000 locations, 28 World Heritage Sites are in the UK and another 11 are on the tentative list.

So, as we celebrate the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI)’s centenary, what better way to mark it than to promote England’s garden cities as World Heritage Sites? Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities have been places of pilgrimage for professionals since the RTPI was founded and even now continue to receive interest from home and abroad.

The first of Ebenezer Howard’s social cities, the pair are living and working proof of his revolutionary and successful ideas. The garden cities were designed for healthy living long before the term environmental sustainability was minted and Howard’s "intellectual property rights" not only formed the basis for the UK new towns programme, but also countless towns and cities around the world from Radburn to Chandigarh.

Now there is an unsurprising but welcome resurgence of interest in garden cities. Around the world, politicians and investors recognise that a development-averse public wants something other than more of the same. World Heritage status will promote understanding of Howard’s unique economic model more widely.

A note of caution, however. I have been told by those that know that inscription is a process that makes strong men weep. The bid would not only have to clear hurdles at English Heritage and the Department for Media, Culture and Sport, but also international juries at UNESCO, the final arbiters and keeper of the list. And it’s important that any bid should be owned by garden city citizens themselves. A tighter planning regime may concern some and increased visitor numbers might disturb others.

But Letchworth and Welwyn Garden citizens have always had an additional layer of planning control exercised through their respective estate management schemes, and frankly, if you choose to live or develop in a special place you should be prepared to accept the rules that are there for the good of all. The upside would be the investment and jobs that the listing brand brings in a global market.

So who should take the lead? The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) is the obvious candidate and the RTPI should be a cheerleader too. What better way to promote British planning – as immediate RTPI past president Peter Geraghty wants – than to showcase the UK exemplar that  continues to inspire a global audience? Let’s do it. This is not a time to weep but time for celebration!

Graeme Bell OBE is a Welwyn Garden  City citizen and a vice-president of the TCPA

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