Labour’s New Towns: Back to the numbers game?

John Harvey

New towns were invented in Britain, and the concept has since spread across the globe. Many, if not all, of the original motivations for building them are still with us today, and recently the concept has come back into vogue with even some Tories and Lib Dems in favour.

These towns offer practical ways to overcome urban squalor; tackle the unaffordability of decent housing for working families; provide employment for the population; and accommodate population growth without despoiling the finite amount of rural and attractive landscape.

As Britain was the first country in the world to go through the industrial revolution it was the first to encounter the challenges brought about by the mass urbanisation of the population with serious problems of insanitary living conditions among the urban poor. The political and social responses to this crisis in living conditions included policy and social campaigns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to control unregulated urbanisation and to provide housing affordable to people in low pay employment.

When Ebenezer Howard published his book “To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform” in 1898 (which was reissued in 1902 as “Garden Cities of To-morrow”) he was offering a vision for tackling these interrelated problems – the overcrowding, the lack of affordable housing for “hard working families” and the need to accommodate industry to give jobs to the local population.  His basic concept was to balance the need to provide land for new industries, for housing and for recreation.

Howard first put forward the now-influential ‘three magnets’ diagram as below, which explored push-pull factors of  living in ‘town, country or town-country’.

The first garden cities were at Letchworth (1899) and Welwyn (1919) and were built using private funding raised by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities Association.  It was not until after the second world war that the Labour government took up the idea and launched a programme of publicly financed new towns based on recommendations from the Barlow Commission and other reports (such as Abercrombie).

Stevenage was the first to be designated in November 1946.  It faced fierce opposition from local authorities and landowners who dubbed it ‘Silkingrad’ after the minister of town and country planning, Lewis Silkin.

Between 1946 and 1970 twenty-one new towns were designated in England, five in Scotland and one in Wales.  These were commissioned in three waves with the third increasingly focused on bringing about economic and industrial benefits; many have been very successful in attracting large foreign investment such as the huge Nissan plant in the north-east new towns.

There is some justice in the view that new towns are drab and dreary with montonous designs and layouts. The development corporations set up to build each new town were required to provide large numbers of houses quickly at costs specified in central government  yardsticks – which led inevitably to mass production methods, lack of variety and use of cheap materials.

False economies meant some ‘novel’ house types were demolished not many years after their construction. They proved too expensive to maintain and too difficult to heat – as well as being regarded by residents (rather than the architects!) as ugly.

It was the Labour government of the late 1970s that brought the new towns programme to an end. With the country’s population stabilised and the advent of mass immigration unforeseen,  Anthony Crosland announced that the “numbers game” was over. The future challenge for housing was seen in terms of raising quality in terms of space standards, variety of dwelling sizes and energy efficiency performance.

However, the mechanism for delivering new towns – the development corporation – was reinvented to tackle the problems of the inner cities under the Conservative government of the 1980s.  Michael Heseltine set up several such corporations to bring a single focus, and land assembly powers to tackle the dereliction brought about by years of inertia – much against the opposition of local Labour-controlled councils at the time.

As Labour’s Lyons Commission begin research into another wave of new towns for Britain, it’s important to reflect on some major lessons from past development corporations.

First, creating new towns is not just about providing housing units but should also be as much about quality, choice and variety. Second, local people matter. While urban development corporations are very effective in assembling land and providing planning permissions for new uses, they need also to reflect the local population. They should meet the needs of people already resident rather than simply paving the way for overseas investors to reap the financial rewards from the enhanced land values brought about by the tax-payers investment in infrastructure and facilities.

So in 2014 we seem to be back into the numbers game again.  It will be important to ensure that the lessons of history are learnt and that the importance of quality of design, layout, variety and choice are not overlooked if we are to launch a fourth generation of new towns.

John Harvey is  chairman of ROOM at RTPI London Region and managing director of IRIS (Independent Research Intelligent Solutions). 

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