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16 June 2011

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.

By Graeme Archer

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.

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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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