New garden city to bring Robert Owen’s co-operative town to life

Four miles from the world heritage site of New Lanark, in what used to be a potato farm, is what could become the modern version of the utopian...

Four miles from the world heritage site of New Lanark, in what used to be a potato farm, is what could become the modern version of the utopian society envisioned by Robert Owen.

The Hometown Foundation, a registered charity that helps create and maintain sustainable, self-reliant communities, aims to build a new settlement on a 2,000-acre site in South Lanarkshire. The land was acquired with funds from the Foundation’s trustees and so far they have spent a significant amount on planning consent and setting a co-operative framework.

Under Robert Owen’s management from 1800 to 1825, the cotton mills and village of New Lanark became a model community that sought, above all, to care for its people. The village is now a Unesco world heritage site.

“Owenstown is based on the success of New Lanark,” explains Dr Jim Arnold, the chair of Owenstown Board and until recent retirement the director of New Lanark Trust. Dr Arnold, who lives in New Lanark, thinks local people regard Owenstown as the kind of project that could achieve the same type of results as Robert Owen in New Lanark, only 200 years later.

Named after the Welsh social reformer, Owenstown will try to put in practice Robert Owen’s ideas of what a society should look like. The garden city will be self-sufficient and will be owned and managed by a co-operative of its citizens. The town will be constructed to high environmental standards and all surplus funds generated will be reinvested in the community.

Bill Nicol, project director at the Hometown Foundation, believes the cost of living in Owenstown would be much lower than the average, providing affordable housing and financial services.

With so many people excluded from the housing market, the project responds to changes within the society. “Robert Owen was looking at a new harmony – and that is something we would like to put in practice,” he says, arguing that the town would provide affordable housing, high-quality education, community-oriented jobs, a more participative approach and a greater sense of well-being for the people living there.

Owenstown will have, among others, 3,200 affordable homes for sale or rent, office and commercial space, cafés, restaurants and shops, leisure and cultural facilities, at least one hotel, two new primary schools and one new secondary school. So far, the Hometown Foundation has already received around 1,500 applications from all over the world–mainly young families who have jobs but cannot afford a place to live.

The Owenstown project will also create jobs in an area of high unemployment. It is hoped that the £500m project will create 4,000 jobs and help revitalise an area severely affected by the decline of coal mining. Everyone over 18 living or working in Owenstown will be able to become a member of the co-operative for a share purchase of £1. The co-operative is not-for-profit, thus members will not receive a dividend, but they will have a vote in the election of the board of management.

Owenstown will be guided by a desire to promote community involvement and ownership in the establishment and management of the town and to encourage economic development and job creation through community enterprises. Such a settlement would provide people with “an alternative way of living and working,” but it might not work for everyone, says Mr Nicol, adding that the town aims to be a “balance between a utopian garden city settlement and the modern world”.

Dr Arnold thinks the main challenge faced by the Hometown Foundation is the fact that the project is something completely new and outside most people’s experience. He says this is also the reason why the project has not yet been approved by the local authorities. Being such an innovative idea, a vast amount of time is required to assess all the wider implications of the project.

The Hometown Foundation launched the planning application back in November 2012, but they still have not received the local council’s approval. Owenstown is not in the local development plan, explains Mr Nicol, which is why the council has not approved it yet. The reason why they chose land that is not within the local development plan is the high price of property in the vicinity of important cities. According to Mr Nicol, the land needs to be acquired at agricultural value for the model to work.

If refused by the local council, then the planning application could be passed on for consideration to the Scottish government, since the £500m project could be considered of national importance. Some government officials are very supportive of the project, including Margaret Burgess, minister for housing and welfare; John Swinney, cabinet secretary for finance, employment and sustainable growth; Michael Russell, cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning; and Jim Hood, the local MSP for Lanark and Hamilton East.

Once the planning permission is secured, the land will be transferred from the Hometown Foundation to the Owenstown Co-operative, partners will be engaged and investment will be finalised – the process could take up to two years. The actual green city could take another 10 years to build.

Former director general of the International Co-operative Alliance, Dr Iain Macdonald, is a board member of the New Lanark Trust. He hopes that South Lanarkshire council will grant planning permission for Owenstown when it meets to discuss the project next month.

“I can’t think of anything which would highlight the benefits of co-operation more than this project. I do hope the local authority gives its approval, as it is a real chance to regenerate the region as well as emphasise the co-operative difference. Being so close to New Lanark gives it that special edge and I am sure Robert Owen would be delighted that, at last, his ideas were making progress. This really would put British co-operation back on the map,” he says.

Should the project not obtain the planning approval, the Hometown Foundation will look at establishing the settlement somewhere else. They have already been in contact with Co-operatives and Mutuals Wales, Social Enterprise Ireland, as well as various co-operative bodies in England. “What we are not doing is lobbying for the project,” explains Mr Nicol, adding that they simply want people to give Owenstown a fair consideration.

The Hometown Foundation’s innovative project has gained the interest of Wolfson Economics Prize, which is offering £250,000 for the best proposal for a 21st garden city. Winning the award would be a great achievement for Owenstown, as it is the second-biggest prize after the Nobel Prize in cash terms – but it could also raise the profile of the Foundation and the project.


Who was Robert Owen?

Robert OwenBorn: 14 May 1771 in Newtown, Wales

Died: 17 November 1858 (aged 87)

Early life: Owen lived and worked in London and and the north west of England, becoming a mill manager in Greater Manchester by age 21. He moved to Scotland after falling in love with and marrying Caroline Dale, daughter of the proprietor of Lanark Mill. He became manager and part owner of the mill following purchase by his partners.

Co-operation: Building on successes in England, at New Lanark Owen focused less on profit and more on higher principles, becoming a great innovator of improved conditions for factory workers (including education, housing and healthcare). It was also here that he opened a store for workers where quality goods could be bought at wholesale cost. The savings from the bulk purchase of these goods were passed to the workers; this principle became the basis for co-operative shops which continues today.

Legacy: Robert Owen firmly believed that poverty throughout the world could be alleviated through socialism, and his ideas – radical for the time – have provided ongoing inspiration for the wider co-operative movement.

Owenstown is not the first co-operative town around the world … Click here to read more about Devoto in Argentina and Melpignano in south Italy.

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