Arts and Crafts Birmingham pioneered the ‘15 Minute World’. That past should inspire our future.

Around the world, the Great Lockdowns will accelerate new ideals about how we live. The philosophy of the ’15 minute world’ is one of the most important. Here in Britain, it’s a movement the West Midlands should lead. Not only is it the right thing to do, it offers us an enticing chance to reclaim and rekindle one of our greatest gifts to Britain: the Art & Crafts movement and its child, the urban village.

Popularised by Parisian politician, Anne Hildago, the “15-minute” world is suddenly very fashionable. Theorised by Professor Carlos Moreno at the Sorbonne as “la ville du quart d’heure” it’s an idea that promises to change the way we live, with a world like the medieval city, where the daily urban necessities — work, shops, entertainment, education and healthcare — are no more than a 15-minute reach on foot or by bike.

Mayors around the world are excited. Milan’s Giuseppe Sala declared in April that his city would become the latest to “rethink the rhythms” of the Lombard capital. Portland promotes 20-minute neighbourhoods for basic needs. Melbourne’s 20-minute neighbourhoods puts the things residents need every day within a 20-minute round-trip on foot, by bike or by local transport options.

There is a consensus of sorts about what’s inside the arc of a 15–20 minute circumference — food, pharmacy, doctors, primary schools and services like a post office. The most ambitious mix more into the package: employment, culture, parks, community spaces, secondary schools and places of worship. But everywhere city leaders try this, there is one common theme: common reducing car dependence.

Fashionable as they are, these ideas in fact have a long history. Jane Jacobs waxed lyrical about ideas of ‘neighbourhood proximity’ in The Life and Death of the American City, published in 1961. Post-war planners like Frederick Gibberd (born in Coventry) designed new towns around the idea. But the real fountain-head for the 15 minute city is to be found in England, in a meadow bordered by the old Worcester and Birmingham Canal, the new Midland Railway and a little trout stream, the Bourn, where a century earlier the Cadbury’s cut the sod for the new settlement of Bournville. What was to grow up in Bournville was one of the first and greatest attempts to reconcile the realities of city living with the vision of William Morris; a future where all England was to become a garden,

“with all the necessary dwellings, sheds, and workshops scattered up and down the country, all trim and neat and pretty.”

Morris wanted a world residents might own a real home as

“not the number so-and-so Paradise Row, but a cottage all of our own, with fits little garden, its healthy air, its clean kitchen, parlour and bedrooms.”

And it was in Bournville that these principles first met the scale of Morris’ ambition, not just raise design to the level of art but to make it available to the widest possible audience.

Arts and Crafts as an artistic movement owed much of its creative force to Birmingham. Born as a reaction, a recoil, to the industrialisation and mechanisation, the standardisation and mass production of the industrial age, it emphasised simple functional design without the excessive ornament, flumery and frills of Victoriana.

Amongst its headwaters was the extraordinary work of Augustus Pugin, architect of the rebuilt House of Commons and whose work adorns the city in Oscott College, Erdington Abbey and the magnificent St Chads Cathedral, one of the first four Catholic churches built after the English Reformation. St Chads was substantially complete by 1841, the same year that Pugin published The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture, which argued the fundamental principles of Christian architecture were medieval, “Gothic”, or “pointed”, architecture.

Pugin was amongst the great inspirers of the ‘Birmingham Set,’ a group of friends who came together around William Morris and a handful of men who had studied at Birmingham’s King Edward’s School, including Edward Burne-Jones in the 1850s. From this group evolved the Pre-Raphaelite circle, which like Pugin drew inspiration from a medieval past. In 1861, the great design firm Morris and Co. was founded with amongst it artist-designers, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and of course, Edward Burne-Jones.

Birmingham and the West Midlands now became the stage of which some of Britain’s finest arts and crafts architecture was set. Within thirty years, Birmingham had founded the Municipal School of Art on Margaret Street (1885), the first Municipal School of Art in the country and from which emerged the ‘Birmingham Group’ of artists, and the Birmingham Guild of Handicraft.

Herbert Tudor Buckland, Charles Bateman, Joseph Lancaster Ball, Arthur Stansfield Dixon, Arthur Harrison and Owen Parsons were amongst the leading lights of the local Arts and Crafts architects and designers who put Birmingham in the vanguard of a new British architecture which wove simple decorative elements into the fabric of the design of buildings.

The movement soon boasted important patrons — like Theodore Mander, the Wolverhampton manufacturer of paint and varnish, who commissioned Morris & Co to furnish his new Wightwick Manor, built c. 1887, and which remains an exquisite showpiece of Morris & Co. interior design, packed full of Pre-Raphaelite treasures.

The former Eagle Insurance building at Nos. 122–124 Colmore Row, designed by Lethaby in collaboration with Ball, is considered to be one the most important Arts and Crafts buildings in the country. William Henry Bidlake designed many of the finest examples still with us. Known as “the man who rebuilt Birmingham” work included the exquisite Church of St Agatha, Sparkbrook (1898), still considered his masterpiece.

But Arts and Crafts was not simply for the elite. In fact, the driving ambition of its authors was to bring ‘design at the level of art’ to the many. And that was the spirit George Cadbury used to transform his home city.

‘I have not been a teacher of a men’s class for 50 years’ George Cadbury once said, ‘without learning that the best way to improve a man’s circumstance is to raise his ideals.

‘[But] how can he cultivate ideals when his home is a slum and his only place of recreation the public house?’.

By the 1870s, not long after Morris & Co was founded, Cadbury Brother’s was very squashed in its Bridge Street headquarters, jammed in by surrounding factories, workshops, railway lines, canals and people of a booming Birmingham. And so every Saturday afternoon, George Cadbury began walking around the city with a few of the firm’s managers until one day he found his spot; fourteen and half acres of sloping meadow land in the middle of five farms, four miles west of Birmingham in the district of King’s Norton.

On Tuesday 18th June 1878, the Cadbury’s bought the site at auction and just six months later in a very wet year, the first of 2 million bricks were laid. Here they created an enormous new plant, where they laid out neatly huge rooms for storage, roasting, grinding, moulding, essence making, sieving, dressing and packing along with offices for support staff, saw mills, tin shops, workshops, engine houses, machinery rooms, stables, a coach house, a smithy, a sugar store — and a Reading Room. It was ‘one of the wonders of England’, as one visitor described it.

But George now had the next stage of his ‘ethical enterprise’ already in mind. Not simply to build a model village for his firm; but a model community for his city. Already at Bournville, there were sixteen semi-detached cottages beside the foreman’s, who lived in a beautiful house on site. But from 1893, George began buying land on a serious scale to the north and west of the site, before in 1895, acquiring 120 acres of land near the factory. This was not to be an estate for factory workers, but a fully fledged new suburb inspired by his long work as a teacher. One of the great innovations of the late Victorian age, it was to be a place designed for a purpose;

‘The amelioration of the conditions of the working class and labouring population in and around Birmingham and elsewhere in Great Britain, by the provision of improved dwellings, with gardens, and open spaces’.

‘A home for workers of many types, employers and employed, managers and operatives, tradesmen and clerks’.

In 1899 George Cadbury acquired the Hay Green estate a mile from the works — and controlled by 1900 about 330 acres. By December 1900, over three hundred houses had been built on the 300 acres adjoining the factory.

Cadbury tasked a young architect William Alexander Harvey, with much of the design work. A student of WH Bidlake at the Birmingham School of Art, Harvey designed a range of Arts and Crafts cottages and public buildings around the village green. Built to Cadbury’s specifications, the houses were rented on long leases, with money lent at low interest to those without means. Each home was allowed 600 sq feet for a deep back garden in which tenants could cultivate produce valued at 2s. 6d. a week throughout the year — a third of their yearly rent. The Trust made no profit and was protected by a Trust, largely composed of Cadbury family members safeguard the village ethos, of: ‘alleviating the evils which arise from the unsanitary and insufficient accomodation supplied to large numbers of the working classes, and of securing to the workers in factories some of the advantages of outdoor village life, with opportunities for the natural and healthful occupation of cultivating the soil’.

Clusters of home were to house mixed income families, with larger homes owned by managers scattered throughout more modest abodes. Thirty three alms houses were built 300 yards west of the cocoa works, and homes for £600 were built next to the homes worth £1500. Only half of the houses went to Bournville wage earners. Shops, school, recreation grounds, and social activities were run by the Village Council to foster a sense of community as George Cadbury hoped that by mixing together families of all backgrounds barriers of class and creed could fall away.

On Wednesday 21st May 1919, George V and Queen Mary arrived to tour their kingdom’s second city. It was a day of glorious weather six months after the end of World War One and after a morning spent opening the new Children’s Hospital and decorating war veterans at the Town Hall, the Royal couple stepped into their carriages at and were escorted to Birmingham’s southern suburbs by the Chief Constable, the mounted police and one of England’s most extraordinary entrepreneurs to see for themselves the fruits of a life’s work.

As they pulled into Bournville Lane, the three Royal carriages were greeted by the deafening cheers of 3,000 people lined up in the stands and the Empire’s greatest chocolate maker, George Cadbury welcomed his sovereign to his ‘factory in the garden’. Awaiting was a welcome reception guarded by injured Bournville veterans and while the Bournville Band played the national anthem, the royal party crossed the wooden bridge into the Girl’s Recreation Grounds to meet some of the 4,000 Bournville girl workers, dressed in white, waving hankerchiefs and singing ‘Now Pray We For Our Country’.

Although the coaches were now waiting impatiently, ‘the Queen expressed a desire to inspire more closely the Village in which she has been interested so long’. ‘It is understood’ explained the Company correspondent; ‘that for many years past the Queen has preserved cuttings and views of Bournville…realising long before public opinion was aroused that the health and happiness of the people depended on their home surroundings’. Here the King and Queen could see first hand, ‘[T]he lilacs, laburnums, and other flowering shrubs in the gardens were at their best, and the front gardens were gay with spring flowers…[not] excelled in any village in England’

That very morning, in his speech to the Town Hall, the King had explained just why Bournville was so important;

‘do not forget’ he said ‘that the experience of war has taught us that its sufferings and sorrows have developed many noble qualities, foremost amongst which are the sinking of class differences and the realisation of common brotherhood…May I express the hope’ he went on ‘that in making your plans you will not merely aim at securing bright and healthy homes, but also provide ample facilities for recreation…They provide air space for the city, beautify it, and make for the happiness and health of the children’.

George Cadbury created not simply a ‘factory in the garden’ but a new model community like no other. It was, as the Melbourne Age put it nearly a decade before, ‘as important to England as a dreadnought.’

Where Cadbury led, others followed.

In Kings Heath, the Cartland family of brass makers formed the Priory Trust to lay out a middle class suburb on its land, with homes in a variety of styles informed by Arts and Crafts thinking, many designed by Bateman and the prolific Birmingham Arts and Crafts architect, William de Lacy Aherne.

But few efforts were on the sheer scale of the Moor Pool estate, built between 1907–11, under the inspiration of John Nettleford by Birmingham Council.

Nettleford was the scion of the family that had the engineering powerhouse that had merged to form GKN, the world’s largest manufacturing business. Horrified by the scale of Birmingham slums, and inspired by William Morris, Red House, Nettleford drew up a report on a new garden suburb policy for Birmingham which was adopted by the City Council in 1906.

As the first chairman of Birmingham Council’s Housing Committee, Nettleford pushed forward an estate of various sized houses, all bespoke Arts and Crafts designs, and a mix of uses, with tennis and bowls clubs, a park, community hall, amateur dramatics society, reading club, and local shops and in the years after World War I and the passing of the Housing — and the Town Planning Act of 1919 — the Council set about delivering Nettleford’s report — and the lessons of Moor Pool — on a massive scale. The Council built 50,000 new Arts and Crafts style council homes in twenty years.

Where Birmingham led, others followed. In Port Sunlight and New Earswick, William Lever and the Rowntrees each in their own way advanced the trend and together these reforms had an profound influence on Ebenezer Howard, the visionary behind Britain’s Garden City model, an attempt at creating a fusion of town and country, a suburban city that would relieve overpopulated urban slums and provide employment and decent housing for rural populations. Indeed, Garden City pioneers Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin went directly from designing New Earswick in 1902 to the masterplanning the first Garden City at Letchworth in 1903.

Today, Bournville, like Port Sunlight and New Earswick are recognised as pioneers of the ‘urban village’ which encapsulate eight key principles — which are a pretty good read across for the very principles which today we can recognise as the very ideals that define the ’15 minute world’.

The Town & Country Planning Association’s Principles for Garden Villages.

They were holistically planned

■ Historic garden villages were holistically planned; i.e. through a masterplan that included jobs, community facilities and local services alongside homes.

They were small in scale

■ Historic garden villages were small in size, usually no more than a few hundred homes. When they were built, many more people lived within a single household, so a few hundred homes accommodated more people than they would today.

They were planned for healthy living

■ Residents were provided with access to green space, nature, fresh air, walking and cycling, sports and outdoor leisure activities, and opportunities to grow local food.

They provided for a vibrant social life

■ Historic garden villages featured active community societies, and their stewardship organisation would organise local sports, arts and community events.

They were designed with high-quality materials and attention to detail

■ Historic garden villages placed a huge emphasis on the use of high-quality and often local materials. Attention to detail and the use of architects resulted in homes and communities that remain desirable today.

They were designed to provide affordable homes close to employment

■ Homes were designed to be genuinely affordable for the local workforce, and close to employment. Garden villages supported their residents through employment offered from a large industrial base.

They provided services for day-to-day needs within walking distance of homes

■ Historic garden villages provided not just homes and jobs but a wide range of amenities and community facilities, meeting day-to-day needs without requiring frequent travel to the surrounding or larger towns or cities.

They were in single land-ownership, with a long-term stewardship organisation

■ Land remained in single ownership, and a charitable trust or organisation was established to look after the development and its residents, funded through a service charge or income from leaseholds. Stewardship may include physical maintenance and improvement of the public realm, managing the public realm, and organising community activities.

So, how would breathe new life into the traditions of our Arts & Crafts history and the new potential of the 15 minute world?

Nettlefold himself recognised a long time ago that retrofitting ‘urban villages’ into the city fabric is well nigh impossible.

“The Garden City idea, the Garden Suburb idea, have taken hold of the minds of Englishmen’ he once said. ‘We cannot hope to make Birmingham into a Garden City, although something can be towards that end, but we can, if we will, create Garden Suburbs around Birmingham”.

But surely there are a few principles that should guide us as we set about rediscovering this glorious past. Here’s a starter for ten.

  1. Trial new masterplans for 15 minute neighbourhoods. Urban villages were planned communities. Much of Birmingham — especially the inner city — grew in an unplanned way, ribbon developments along what were the old turnpike roads that connected Birmingham to the outside world. Applying ‘15 minute world’ principles will require some holistic planning.
  2. Transform availability of affordable homes — and homes for social rent. At the absolute core of Cadbury’s mission, like Morris, was the ambition to democratise access to affordable homes. This is now critically important because the number of affordable homes, and homes for social rent, that we are building has collapsed by over 80% since 2010–11.

Homes Built for Social Rent

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3. Get serious about good design at a price everyone can afford. Much of Birmingham’s more recent architecture is terrible. New developments have been thrown up, ‘value engineered’ the the nth degree, without much sense of place. Councils lack architects to help police good design. We have to change this. We have to rediscover the ambition to raise design to the level of art.

4. Rethink public transport for the ‘last mile’ between the front door and local transport spines. The 15 minute world requires a revolution in the way we think about transport policy. In particular we have to rethink good options for transport without cars between the front door and the local nodes of public transport. Innovations like eBikes have a lot to offer, if there are safe and pleasant routes to walk and cycle. That means a lot more road safety measures and cycle lanes.

5. Reinvest in green spaces, community anchors and ‘village squares’. We have a lot of parks in a poor state. We have a lot of great buildings which are shuttered. We have many persistent local identities which lack the physcial focus on the ‘village square’. Yet, if we are to strengthen the community spirit, we need better community spaces.

6. Reimagine high streets as mixed spaces combining retail, enterprise space, public services — and homes. The High Street has been on its knees for a long time. So we need to re-conceptualise high streets as more than simply retail spaces and diversify their use. Our idea of Cooperative Development Zones, is one way we can start innovating.

7. Regulation has to bite on retailers and the private rented sector. The city’s public spaces are scarred by the abuse of bad retailers dumping rubbish, and bad landlords. It will be impossible to improve the public realm and therefore peoples’ ability to positively affect the local built environment, without very different regulation of bad behaviour. That will take a mixture of the sorts of powers wielded by Bournville Village Trust, with the sort of resources marshalled by Business Innovation Districts.

Over the next months, as we head into May’s elections, these are the sorts of ideas that we should debate and refine. I’d love to know what you think.

Written by

Shadow Mayor of the West Midlands. Chair, Parliamentary Network on the World Bank & IMF. MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill. Gwilyn Gibbon Fellow, Nuffield College.

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