The New Towns have made us a better nation

If Labour wants something to be proud of, it should look no further than Britain's New Towns.

Very rarely, I go to a political event in SW1. One of the (many) reasons I don't like them is the disappointment I see etched onto the face of people when I answer their question: "And where do you work?". They don't like the corporate answer (I don't work in politics, the law, or journalism, and whatever people say on radio phone-ins, they don't really want to listen to a disquisition about "science") but they particularly dislike the literal, geographical answer: Stevenage. I work in Stevenage. What's more, I think it's a beautiful town.

Would you like to live or work in a New Town? I bet I can guess the answer to that question. Yet I have a fondness for the ones I've known, and I wonder why the Labour movement doesn't make more of these creations of the Left. Those of us on the Tory side of things make a big and constant noise about the failure of the very concept of central planning, particularly, of course, when it comes to the economy, but also with regard to provision of health care, policing strategies, and increasingly educational services (I can't believe I just typed "educational services". I meant "schools". I'm going to leave it unchanged as a warning to my future self). But you'll notice we never talked much about New Towns. It's not just, I think, because the original corporations have long been wound up. Maybe it's also true that they are the left-wing exception that proves the Tory rule.

The centre of Stevenage is beautiful: pleasing, not fearful, symmetries abound. It's clear you're not in Bath, but neither are you on Pluto. It still feels like a town centre, and if the fountain in the main square is a little forlorn, well and so what? It's a kinetic link to a more optimistic decade. You can walk from the train station, past an Arts Centre and theatre, through a bus station, past the shops (chains and independents), take an underpass and arrive at one of the country's best swimming pools - in ten minutes. Yes, Stevenage town centre was centrally planned; yes, the decades might not have been kind to concrete. But it works. As a living town centre, it works.

Before Stevenage, I worked in Harlow, and lived there too, and once was proudly elected to its council (biggest swing in Essex you know), and I love the town, the centre of which has enjoyed a facelift in recent years. It's a town of neighbourhoods. Potter Street is a different place, with a different feel, to Katherines or Sumners. Islands of houses surrounded by lots of green space and cycle lanes. There are probably too many cars in Harlow now for maximum comfort, but you can still sense what Gibberd saw in his mind's eye, and it still makes sense.

Something about New Towns created a spirit of - well, I hate to use the word "solidarity" [Yes, but it's what you mean - Ed]. But a town without an inbuilt squirearchy is made to be at ease with itself. I'm delighted (understatement of the year) that Rob Halfon represents Harlow in Parliament now, after a near decade of street-level campaigning, but I remember fondly too his predecessor, the Labour MP Bill Rammell, approachably sweaty in the town gym. Part of being "Harlow" is to judge incomers fairly, because nearly everyone "came in", not that long ago. I had fewer negative comments there about my sexuality, or Scottish accent, than anywhere else I've lived. Neither was there any sectarian hatred of the sort I grew up with in Scotland. That didn't make the political culture anodyne. The Labour-Tory battle in Harlow is constant and intense but strangely decent. It is of Harlow. I once had a furious row about Margaret Thatcher with a man in the swimming pool sauna. That we were both naked at the time seemed fitting: in New Towns, it's what you make of yourself that matters, not the clothes you dress up in.

New Towns are not Utopias, as my cold Tory eye couldn't fail to notice. Hierarchies (at least of the architectural or postcode form) have begun to evolve, whatever the planners intended. But these towns don't deserve the press they've received over the years. Much as I love Angus Wilson, the neuroticism he depicts in the protagonists of his novel Late Call do not deserve to be ascribed, as the subliminal sense of the plot suggests, to the New Town in which they find themselves living. More fitting are the words of Alasdair Gray: Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation. The New Towns have made us a better nation; they are the still-young proof that it is, despite everything, possible to obey Gray's dictum with the bricks and fields of a man-made town. Were I of the Left, I would never shut up about them.

Graeme Archer is the 2011 Orwell Prize winner for blogging.

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Time to start fixing the broken safety net that no longer catches struggling families

We are failing to ensure we look after the children of families both in and out of work.

Families on low incomes are once again bearing the brunt of a tough economic environment. Over the past decade, rising costs of items such as food, energy and childcare, combined with stagnating wages and cuts in benefits, have repeatedly put a squeeze on family budgets.

Between 2014 and 2016, some of these pressures eased, as inflation sank to zero and pay started to grow again. But now that inflation has returned, for the first time in postwar history the increasing cost of a child is being combined with a freeze in all financial support for children. The failure to uprate either benefits, tax credits or the wage levels at which tax credits are withdrawn means that inflation is bound to erode modest family incomes both in and out of work.

The gradual fall in living standards that this produces will be worsened by other benefit cuts that come in over the next few years, for different families at different times. For a start, the phasing out of the “family element” of Child Tax Credit (and its equivalent in Universal Credit) will eventually result in all low-income families getting more than £500 a year less from the state than at present.

Since this only applies to families whose oldest child was born in April 2017 or later, it hits families with the youngest children first, with the effect spreading gradually through the population. The restriction of tax credit entitlements to a maximum of two children is also being phased in, affecting only third children born from this year on, but will clobber families much more severely, with a loss of nearly £2,800 a year per child.

Some existing larger families who escape this cut have nevertheless had their income severely reduced this year (by anything up to £6,000) by the reduction in the benefit cap.

My latest report on the cost of a child, for Child Poverty Action Group, takes stock of these trends and the effects they will have on parents’ ability to provide for their families effectively. For some families in work, improved support for childcare and a higher minimum wage partially offsets the losses incurred as a result of the above cuts. But for those relying on benefits as a “safety net” when they are not working, the level of this net is being progressively lowered over time. On present policies, the support that it provides will sink below half of what families need as a minimum sometime early in the 2020s – having in contrast provided about two thirds of their requirements at the start of the present decade.

There comes a point when a “safety net” stops being worthy of its name because it is no longer enough to provide even the bare essentials of modern life. The evidence shows that when income sinks this low, most families can only escape severe material hardship either by going into debt or by getting help from extended family members.

We are about to enter a new parliamentary season, led by a government that survived by the skin of its teeth after a disgruntled electorate failed to give it the clear majority that it sought. Raising family living standards has been at the heart of the political promise to improve people’s lives. The benefits freeze alone seems to contradict this promise by creating a downward escalator for the half of families relying on some kind of means-tested benefit or tax credit, in combination with child benefit.

For those  who are “just about managing”, and particularly for others who are not managing at all, the clearest signal that Philip Hammond could give in his Autumn Budget that he is starting  to reverse the direction of that escalator would be to restore a system of benefit upratings. This would at least allow incomes to keep up with living costs, stopping things from getting systematically worse, and giving a stable foundation on which measures to improve living standards could build.

Professor Donald Hirsch is director of the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University