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12 July 2022

From the NS archive: New Towns

21 May 1949: Two years is none too long to build a town in which people may live for 20 or 30 generations.

By Gordon Rattray Taylor

The New Towns Act of 1946 sought to restore the nation’s housing supply in the aftermath of the Second World War. In the first phrase of the project, the “New Towns” of Harlow, Basildon, Stevenage and Hemel Hempstead were developed to entice people out of the urban sprawl of London and into modern settlements outside the green belt. In this article written a few years into the ambitious social experiment, the journalist and author Gordon Rattray Taylor evaluates the progress made so far. Budgets, bureaucracy and public backlash appear to account for initial mistakes and delays, but Taylor seems optimistic that the enormous social venture is still set to “achieve the outstanding success which lies so nearly within its reach”.

After some two years of preliminary work, several of the New Towns are now beginning to build their first permanent dwellings. At Harlow for instance, the first group of 98 houses is under construction, and all the other towns designated for the London overspill have made a start, except Hatfield; while at Newton Aycliffe, near Darlington, 41 families are already housed in permanent pre-fabs. “About time, too,” is probably the reaction of the ordinary man. He sees nothing of the preliminary work: the sewage problem alone is enormous, and there are more obscure difficulties, such as disposal of surface water after storms. And in any case two years is none too long to prepare the plans for a town in which people may have to live for twenty or thirty generations.

Certainly there have been mistakes and delays. Stevenage, handicapped by having three Corporation chairmen in two years, seems unable to finalise its master plan, and is being overtaken by later starters. At Crawley, Thomas Sharp’s original plan was abandoned, and a tighter, more economical version designed. At Hemel Hempstead, where there are 200,000 existing inhabitants, intense opposition developed against the proposed new town-centre, which involved scrapping many existing buildings and creating an impressive water-garden and shopping-street; much of [the architect and planner Geoffrey] Jellicoe’s imaginative, if controversial, plan disappeared in the attempt to reach a compromise. Most serious of all, the entire programme at Peterlee, in County Durham, has been held up whilst the possibility of subsidence owing to coal-working is being investigated. Despite Ministerial protestation to the contrary, this does not seem to have been taken into serious consideration when the site was chosen, and the fate of the whole plan may depend upon the expert report, which is now being analysed.

In addition to these individual setbacks, there have also been shocks of another kind, affecting all the Development Corporations equally. Chief of these is the discovery that the Corporations are far less powerful than had been imagined. Though on paper they have wide powers, for everyone on their schemes they have to obtain the approval of other bodies, notably the County Council. And while the Development Corporations claim that it is precisely their job to try new experiments, County Planning Officers have proved reluctant to sanction any departure from customary standards, partly no doubt because they fear that others in their bailiwick will then claim similar privileges, but still more (some New Town planners allege) because they lack imagination. What makes the situation especially delicate is that the New Towns tend to employ younger men, school-trained and experimentally inclined, who see their plans vetoed by older men whose chief experience is legal and administrative rather than creative. Naturally, morale suffers.

But the roots of the problem go much deeper than the abilities of the County Planning Officers; they extend to the by-laws upon which they have to depend. These were designed to curb the speculative builder, assumed to be devoid of public spirit; applied to men whose good intentions are assured they prove a strait-jacket. Thus, in a case where houses were to be built on the southern margin of a road, the New Town planners proposed that they should be placed a few feet nearer the road, and that the space thus gained should be added to the sunny garden at the back, where it would yield greater practical benefit than in the shadow on the north. The County Council, however, could not sanction any departure from the standard building line.

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Another severe limitation under which the New Towns are working is financial. Since they must balance their accounts, the rent of houses and shops must carry the cost of all the new roads, parks, civic buildings and the Corporation itself, except in so far as special grants are available. The Corporations cannot call upon additional rate contributions, or equalise the rents of pre- and post-war housing. In practice, many of them are thinking of charging between 25s. and 33s. a week for subsidised houses, and even at this figure only terrace houses of a rather uninspiring type can be provided, whereas the preferred house is semi-detached. But it will be remembered that in the Willesden survey 69 per-cent of the respondents named sums below 25s. as the most likely they would be prepared to pay if they were a tenant in a New Town, and 12 per-cent named sums under 14s. The architect replies that it is the last 3s. of rent which provides the amenities. Face a man with two actual houses, so that he can see what he is getting for the extra 3s., and he will be eager to pay the additional sum. On the other hand, the sociologist suggests that no one should spend more than one-fifth of their income on rent – which puts these houses outside the reach of everyone getting the national average wage or less. If the New Towns are to get over this hurdle, the State will probably have to make a special subsidy.

These physical problems, however, are not the most serious. Big difficulties are those of creating a vigorous community spirit. The Corporations are fully aware of the problem: how to escape the desperately grey, devitalised atmosphere of the housing estate without falling into the smug paternalism of a Bournville or a Port Sunlight. But as to how this is to be done, they have only a few, unreliable clues. Chief of these is the concept of the “neighbourhood unit” and a touching faith in the magic of community centres. The term “neighbourhood unit” sheds a pleasing aura of neighbourliness of the mechanical proposition that towns should be chopped up into more or less self-contained units of about 10,000 people. No one seems to know how this figure was arrived at, and it is reasonably objected that this number of people constitutes a town the size of Lichfield or Abingdon, and not a neighbourhood at all. In point of fact, the Aycliffe team has come by four or five different paths to the conclusion that 2,000 people form a natural social unit: conveniently enough, they provide just enough infants to support one nursery school; and, at approved housing densities, occupy an area such that no one need be more than a quarter of a mile from the nearest shops. They even make a neat round for a milkman.

Again, the success of very small community centres serving only a few hundred people, such is Currock House, at Carlisle, suggests that the New Towns might do better to have a large number of small centres, instead of a single large one for the whole town. Community spirit is built out of a vast number of face-to-face groupings; and, by drawing people out of such local groupings, a civic community centre may actually reduce cohesion, not increase it. Further, all anthropological research stresses the importance of kinship in binding communities together, but the New Towns’ policy of importing single families, whenever there is a job for the principal wage-earner, ensures that such groups of kin shall be broken up – with adverse effects for the “exporting boroughs” also.

The real trouble is lack of adequate basic research and, above all, research into the kind of life people want to lead and the kind of life which fosters happiness. In the absence of a factual background, the Corporations can only specify for cinemas, shopping centres, day nurseries and so forth, and hope for the best. In the last few months a sociological research unit has been established at the Ministry of Town and Country Planning under Dr Ruth Glass (the appointment is temporary); but the complaint of the Corporations is that they cannot wait for results. They have to act now.

If it is hard to create corporate unity, it will be still harder to provide the new communities with a sense of purpose, a sense of being part of a great cultural tradition, a sense of the “numinous”. Perhaps this can in part be done (as Henry Morris has sought to show in his village colleges in Cambridgeshire) by building social life round the educational centre, and making that centre something much more than a mere processing plant for human beings. Here Crawley should be able to set the pace, for [the architect and planner Anthony] Minoprio has grouped its educational buildings in campuses shared between two or three neighbourhood units. But it certainly cannot be done unless the community is given, at the earliest moment, the maximum responsibility for its own development. Enthusiasm and determination to achieve something really outstanding permeates the Corporations; but too many of them conceive their task in paternalist (I had almost written maternalist) terms. In referring to the inhabitants, actual or prospective, they invariably say “they” and not “we”, and they look forward to handing the town over to the Council as a going concern at the end of twenty years.

There are, of course, exceptions. Harlow is showing the better way here by many small initiatives. Peterlee, starting with the advantage of being created in response to popular demand, has made good use of door-to-door surveys and other techniques for enlisting intelligent participation. But much more needs to be done, and a fresher wind must blow through the country mansions of the Corporations – often physically as well as intellectually remote from the people for whom they are planning – if this enormous social venture is to achieve the outstanding success which lies so nearly within its reach.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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