John Sutton Nettlefold became a key figure in the history of public housing in Birmingham, signalling the growing emergence of local government in the town planning process. Born in London, he later moved to Birmingham, where his father forged close business links with the Chamberlain family, John eventually marrying Arthur Chamberlain’s eldest daughter Margaret. By the late nineteenth century he was making a successful career in local business, and lived in Edgbaston along with several other of his relatives.
In 1898 he entered the Council as representative of Edgbaston and Harborne Ward, which he served until 1911. His expertise lay in the field of public housing, and he was appointed Chairman of the new Housing Committee in 1901, extending slum clearance works beyond the area allocated by Chamberlain’s Improvement Committee.
His interest in urban planning meant he also became a member of the Garden City Association, with enlightened privately-sponsored schemes such as Letchworth Garden City and Bournville Village providing an alternative to both the back-to-backs and the newer suburban terraces.
His many publications included Slum Reform and Town Planning (1906) and Practical Housing (1908). His work seems inspired by a speech delivered at the 1906 Sheffield Housing Conference by W.S. Lever, who had built a model estate for his workers near his Port Sunlight factory on the River Mersey:
‘It has been said that God made the country and man made the town; let us, in the development of the suburban site areas, approach nearer to the ideal of the country’.
Nettlefold, likewise, more dryly argued:
'Town Planning, together with cheap and rapid means of transit, now make it possible to combine the means of livelihood in our towns with the health-giving opportunities of the country.'
He stated that local authorities should pre-emptively plan working class suburbs, setting standards for housing density, street width, green spaces and limits of industrial development on rural land prior to boundary changes, and before transport infrastructure drove up land prices and opened the land to speculative builders. This would allow enlightened developers to build better housing more cheaply in congenial, semi-rural surroundings for Birmingham’s working-classes, as had occurred in.
The convergence of philanthropic private interests and public planners was enshrined in the Housing and Town Planning Act, 1909, which allowed local authorities to submit Town Planning Schemes for parliamentary approval, and one of Birmingham’s first was approved for the south-western fringes of the city four years later.
In May 1911 the ‘Greater Birmingham Act’, was passed by the
British parliament. The act extended the city's boundaries to include
Erdington, Aston Manor, King's Norton, Northfield, Yardley, and Handsworth. Now
with an area three times the size of Glasgow, and twice that of Manchester,
Liverpool, or Belfast, Greater Birmingham became, in area and population,
Britain’s ‘Second City’. The act was largely the achievement of the John Sutton Nettlefold whose housing schemes used
undeveloped land around the city for new low density suburbs to replace
inner-city slums. Soon after, newspapers began referring to Birmingham as Britain’s ‘second city’ or the ‘second city of Empire’. For Nettlefold a ‘Greater Birmingham’ was always to be a ‘better Birmingham’.