Q&A: Simon Wolfson

Founder of the Wolfson Economics Prize and conservative life peer on why he’s offering £250,000 for a new garden city concept to follow in Ebenezer Howard’s footsteps

A garden city concept’s a bit old-hat isn’t it?

Our cities are pretending not be urban, so we’re running a competition for a new kind of city. I’m interested in the possibilities of bringing nature and human habitation together. I live outside Milton Keynes – it’s great in terms of green space, leafy streets and quality of housing, but it lacks the sense of energy you get in a dense urban city like, say, Manchester. How can we make our cities exciting?

A £250,000 prize? Are we that short of ideas?

We want a winner that’s inspirational. We want to see how our cities can deliver growth, improve people’s everyday lives qualitatively, and be viable. ‘Sustainable’ and ‘zero carbon’ are distinct propositions; economic viability may not mean gold-plated sustainability.

PQQ’s are a bit of a hot topic at the moment...

There’s no pre-qualification criteria. The competition has two rounds – the first is a 10,000 word entry on how to create an inspiring city without government funding. The architecture of the new city is very much linked to the politics of its procurement. We’re expecting a shortlist of five practices to develop the idea. We’ll give each £10,000, as they’ll have brought in external consultants to ground it in the real world. Of them, one will win the prize.

Your judges read like a Dragon’s den of volume housebuilders

Some of the judges are from big business, like me, or financial academia but this is primarily an economics prize, and any proposal must be founded on economic viability. But we want ambitious proposals, open and flexible within its economic framework. It needs to fulfil people’s needs, not dictate how they should live.

So you’re saying cities are just about making the sums add up?

Affordability is key, but if you make somewhere more desirable, costs go up. The free market allocates value – in the UK markets are constrained artificially. If we can increase supply, homes will become more affordable.  

Where would you want to live?

I won’t be drawn on that, but every city has something great and inspiring about it, though few deliver it all. London has fantastic urban spaces, planned squares and terraces for example, but getting around can be a nightmare.

Not a bit of a tall order then?

It’s all about changing the way we think. Governance is key. It would take an organisation like a development corporation with both planning and implementation powers to see something visionary through. That’s what the competition is about – kick-starting new thinking that makes us look differently at how we live in cities.