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The Origins of the New Town Programme

London. New Year’s Day, 1947

“It was the winter of a great nation’s discontent. An air of melancholia hung like a chill fog over London. Rarely, if ever, had Britain’s capital ushered in a New Year in a mood so bleak, so morose. Hardly a home in the city that festive morning could furnish enough hot water to allow a man to shave or a woman to cover the bottom of her wash-basin. Londoners had greeted the New Year in bedrooms so cold their breath had drifted on the air like puffs of smoke.

And yet that sad, joyless city was the capital of a conquering nation. Only seventeen months before, the British had emerged victorious from mankind’s most terrible conflict. Their achievements, their courage in adversity then, had inspired an admiration such as the world had never before accorded them.

The cost of that victory, however, had almost vanquished the British. Britain’s industry was crippled, her exchequer bankrupt, her once haughty pound sterling surviving only on injections of American and Canadian dollars, her Treasury unable to pay the staggering debt she’d run up to finance the war.

For Londoners, the New Year beginning on 1 January 1947 would be the eighth consecutive year they’d lived under severe rationing of almost every product they consumed: food, fuel, drinks, energy, shoes, clothing. ‘Starve and Shiver’ had become the byword of a people who’d defeated Hitler proclaiming ‘V for Victory’ and ‘Thumbs Up’. Only one family in 15 had been able to find and afford a Christmas turkey for the holiday season just past. Many a child’s stocking had been empty that Christmas Eve. The treasury had slapped a 100% purchase tax on toys. The word most frequently scrawled on the windows of London’s shops was ‘No’: no potatoes, no logs, no coal, no cigarettes, no meat. Indeed, the reality confronting Britain that New Year’s morning had been captured in one cruel sentence by her greatest economist, John Maynard Keynes, who had told his countrymen the year before: ‘we are a poor nation, and we must learn to live accordingly’ “

Freedom At Midnight Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre (1975)

Britain in 1947

1947 was a hard year in Britain. Saddled with a huge wartime debt that sapped the nation’s ability to spend on consumer goods, the rationing of food continued, as it would until 1954. Partly because of the obligation to feed the heavily-populated British zone of occupation in Germany, bread rationing, never imposed during the war, was introduced in the summer of 1946. The coal industry was nationalized in January, just as the worst winter in a century began to take hold with a freeze that lasted until the end of March. The country was blanketed with snow, trains and coastal shipping were immobilized, and supplies of coal dwindled in the face of unrelenting demand. Industries closed down, throwing 800,000 people out of work.

On VJ Day Britain faced a stark choice between three alternatives: beg, borrow or starve. Deciding that more borrowing from the United States was the only viable option, the government drew up a statement of the country’s economic position after the war. It made depressing reading. The country faced a financial burden twice that caused by the Great War. Foreign investments worth £1.1 billion had been sold to pay for imports; 15.9 million tons of shipping, worth about £700 million, had been sunk. Damage to housing came to about £1.5 billion. Britain still had large foreign investments, yielding a return of about £170 million a year, but because armies in Egypt and India had been financed by loans raised on the spot, there were debts amounting to more than £3 billion and despite the low interest rates at the time, they would still cost about £75 million a year. Repaying the debts (sometimes referred to as sterling balances because the balances were in favour of Britain’s creditors) was going to take a long time. And now there would also be new debts owed to the United States and to Canada (which made a loan considerably larger than the American one, considered in terms of the differing population size of the two countries).

Despite the bleak outlook, the government embarked on a bold redevelopment programme which would make it the destination for architects and planners for many years to come. Perhaps without having fully considered all the practical difficulties, the decision was made to start building a network of new towns to permit a decentralization of industry and a re-housing of population from over-crowded inner cities. Harlow was one of them.

Garden Cities and New Towns

On 25 March 1947 the Minister of Town and Country Planning issued a designation order for a completely new planned community of 60,000 people, west of the existing Essex village of Harlow. This decision, and 7 more like it that year, was a huge leap into the unknown – one made possible by a very particular combination of circumstances, and after a half-century of preparatory work.

Ebenezer HowardIn 1898 an unlikely Utopian by the name of Ebenezer Howard outlined his vision for a better future for the population of England in Tomorrow – a Peaceful Path to Real Reform. When the book was re-issued in 1901 it had been renamed to Garden Cities of Tomorrow. The change in title was significant – representing the conviction on the part of Howard’s supporters that England wasn’t ready for a social revolution, but might be willing to embrace the goal of better planning for urban areas by means of the creation of ‘garden cities’. These were described by Howard as towns ‘designed for healthy living and industry; of a size that makes possible a full measure of social life but not larger; surrounded by a rural belt’. Howard and his supporters in the Garden City Association did build two garden cities by private subscription – Letchworth (1902) and Welwyn (1920) but both were hampered by a shortage of funds. But both remain as lasting testimony to the vision and bravery of these social reformers. No one, in any country, had, or has attempted anything like what they accomplished. And their pioneering efforts, somewhat improbably, ended up becoming enshrined in the government’s plans for the redevelopment of post-war Britain.

Tomorrow:  A Peaceful Real Path To Social Reform (1898) Welwyn Garden City Poster Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1901)
Plan of a Garden City The Three Magnets A group of Garden Cities arranged around a central city

The New Town Programme owed its existence to the confluence of three different factors. The first was the concurrent development of planning as a profession, and the creation of the Town and Country Planning Association which called for a more rational planning system – one element of which might be new towns. The goals of the TCPA were supported by the 1940 report of Sir Montague Barlow’s Royal Commission on the Distribution of the Industrial Population. The Commission had been set up in 1938 at a time when there was widespread concern about the possible economic, strategic and environmental consequences of the increasing concentration of British population and industry in large urban areas. The concern was heightened by the fact that, on the one hand, suburban developments foreshadowed the spectre of unstoppable urban growth while, on the other, redevelopment of cities was hindered by the size of the population living in the inner core. Rehousing this population on site would inevitably mean the building of large numbers of flats, which were unpopular not only among the ‘light and air’ planners, but also most of their prospective residents. The major recommendation of the Barlow Commission was a policy of ‘planned decentralisation’ of population and industry. Another recommendation, and the only one taken up in the short term, was the concentration Abercrombie's Greater London Plan showing the proposed new satellite towns.of planning in a new central authority – the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, created in 1943, and charged with considering the reconstruction of Britain after the war. That same year Professor Patrick Abercrombie, a member of the Barlow Commission, was asked to prepare a plan for the Greater London Area. His plan called for a greener, more open London, protected from suburban sprawl by an extensive Green Belt, beyond which would be developed a ring of ‘satellite’ towns – proper towns, not simply dormitories.

The War was the second factor. The questions that Barlow had been asked to consider in 1938 were now much more urgent, given the amount of industry that had been destroyed and the number of people made homeless. There was also a new climate of opinion, in which the question of what form the reconstruction of the country might take was considered in light of the generally-accepted idea that the scientific and professional elite could be relied upon to find the appropriate solution. Thus, when the new discipline of planning was given the opportunity to build new communities on a vast scale, the design principles adopted for the New Towns were applied without any questioning of their validity.

The third factor was the election of a Labour government in 1945. Given the sheer scale of the problems faced by the government, one would have thought it unlikely that detailed consideration would be given to an issue as marginal to its policies as the development of new towns. However Lewis Silkin, the new Minister of Town and Country Planning, believed that ‘one or two’ new towns might be built as a trial. One of his first actions was to establish a committee to “consider the general questions of the establishment, development, organisation and administration that will arise in the promotion of new towns and in furtherance of a policy of planned decentralisation from congested urban areas; and in accordance therewith to suggest guiding principles on which such towns should be established and developed as self-contained and balanced communities for work and living.”

The New Towns Act 1946 was the result. The government envisaged that about 20 entirely new towns would be built, all entrusted to a new type of administrative body called a Development Corporation. Each would have enormous power: to acquire sites large enough to accommodate a town, to undertake all necessary types of development (including houses, factories, commercial buildings and services), and to hire the necessary staff. The government would loan to the Corporation the necessary funds, at the ordinary rate of interest, repayable over 60 years. Fourteen New Towns were designated between 1947 and 1950, eight of them in a ring around London. Harlow was one of them. By the time the New Towns programme came to an end in 1967 a total of 32 had been built: 25 in England, 5 in Scotland and 2 in Wales.

The Designation of Harlow

Harlow, 1948.  (Ordnance Survey Map)The 6,400 acres which would form the site of Harlow New Town lay west of the existing village of Harlow and south of the Stort Navigation and the main line of the London and North Eastern Railway. About 2,500 people lived in the villages of Harlow and Potter Street, and about 2,000 in the hamlets of Great Parndon, Netteswell and Burnt Mill, and in scattered farm cottages. Many of the landowners were bitterly opposed to the idea of 60,000 people, living in 20,000 houses in their area and they joined with some of the local shopkeepers to form the Harlow and District Defence Association in 1946 to fight the Harlow from the west, 1948proposal. Their negative view was countered by an opposing group that had the support of the local Labour Party and the local MP, Leah Manning, who staunchly defended both the New Towns Act and also the choice of Harlow over Ongar as the most appropriate site for a new town in this part of Essex. The success of the campaign she waged in Westminster on behalf of those who believed the creation of a new town would give them a reasonable chance to better their lot was assured when many of the local shopkeepers began to recognize the economic benefits that a new town could bring, and dropped their opposition. In the end, given that the New Towns were an important part of a new government’s policy, the objections of the landowners were futile, but the dislike of the new town and the suspicion that it would continue to expand into the surrounding agricultural areas are as present today as they were more than a half-century ago. A decade-long struggle to expand the boundaries of the town to provide housing for the second generation came to naught in 1974 in the face of vigorous opposition from surrounding councils. The addition of 3,500 homes in Church Langley between 1986 and 2001, and the subsequent development of New Hall met with unsuccessful opposition, and the current plan to build 1,200 new houses on land east of Old Harlow is still being fought by those who wish to preserve both the original ideas behind the plan for Harlow and the adjacent farmland. If the town is to grow, and if planning permission to extend its boundary into the metropolitan green belt is not obtained, then it argued that new development will have to occur in the green wedges that separate the neighbourhoods. This would do serious damage to the basic philosophy behind Gibberd’s plan, and the idea is opposed for that reason. There will be no easy solution to the problem.

Harlow Defence Association flyer, 1946 The supporters of Harlow strike back.  Opposition to the expansion of Harlow.  A billboard in Roydon, 1977
Plan of the proposed Gilden Way development, 2011   The Harlow Civic Society's 'Stop Gilden Way Development' poster, 2010

It is one thing to designate a new town. It is quite another to build it. The site chosen for Harlow New Town had little to offer. The only good road was the London Road (the A11). The rest were country roads, some of which have survived as cycle tracks. Water supply was a vexing question because Essex is a notoriously dry county. The Herts and Essex Water Company had reserve water for only about 3,000 houses. The Stort was about 50% sewage effluent, and this had to be cleaned up at the same time that a solution be found for the disposal of a vastly increased amount of sewage. Without employment the goals of the New Town could not be met, but industry was not keen to relocate there, partly because the only access was through the east end of London and partly because the London and North East Railway had a very poor reputation. Despite these drawbacks and the obvious challenges they posed, the site was approved, the land acquired, and work on the town began.

The Design of Harlow

“Harlow was one of the first and most successful of the new town projects, being both relatively uncontroversial and unusually unified and architecturally distinguished in its physical plan”. (Aldridge, 1996: 32)

“…Harlow represented a particular synthesis of Englishness and Modernity, combining radical ideals of collective living with local vernacular details to forge a distinctive ‘civic modernity’ that for some time was a successful reconciliation of Modernity and tradition, yet for others represented a trampling on English traditions. Retrospectively, Harlow has been described as exemplifying a form of modern planning in which social betterment was to be secured through the creation of an aesthetically-pleasing and rationally-ordered townscape, and hence as an example of a townscape whose form is steeped with the motives, economies and dreams of the 20th century.” (Hubbard, 2010: 407).

Sir Frederick Gibberd and his plan for Harlow

Frederick Ernest Gibberd (7 January 1908 - 9 January 1984)Harlow has the distinction of being the only one of the New Towns that was blessed with a master planner who lived in it for the entire period of its development. Sir Frederick Gibberd, whom a recent book refers to as ‘Britain’s leading architect-planner of the era’ (Alexander, 2009: 120), lived in Harlow from 1947 until his death in 1984. The planning and building of Harlow was a heroic and idealistic endeavour and must be considered in light of its original intentions and the serious economic constraints under which it was born – and not in light of later criticisms that some of the basic principles upon which the plan was based were misguided, nor in light of modern attitudes towards its housing types.

The original motive of Gibberd’s plan was to house some people in the South East of England in genuine communities, with good services and amenities and high quality design quality, while protecting and, where possible, enhancing environmental quality. A half-century from now, our modern orthodoxies may turn out to be no better founded than those of Gibberd and his collaborators. A hasty rush to apply radically new ideas in urban design or architecture today runs just as great a risk of creating places that fail the criteria of meeting future needs. Harlow, like all the New Towns, suffers from the unintended side effects and unanticipated social and technological changes that made obsolete or impractical some of the original design decisions. Nobody in 1947 could honesty have predicted that car ownership – indeed multiple car ownership, would become the norm, that cycling would so completely disappear from the stable of journey-to-work options, or that television and then the internet would reduce and then eliminate the desire and need for communal entertainment.

One of the basic elements of Gibberd’s plan was that Harlow should be a town – not a rural village. Given the later criticisms that its density was too low, this seems strange. But it is a fact that the economics of building a town on previously agricultural land The Marriage of Town and Country.  Second Avenue looking west, ca. 1960made lower densities possible. And, given their Garden City heritage, it isn’t surprising that the New Towns offered a new beginning where the presumed health benefits of open countryside could be incorporated into the towns. In 1953 the Architectural Review contained articles by Gordon Cullen and J.M. Richards which complained of the ‘prairie planning’ of new towns in general, and of Harlow in particular. For these critics the low density and the basic landscaping plan, based on Gibberd’s treasured ‘green wedges’, meant that Harlow wasn’t a town at all but merely a group of suburban estates separated from each other by functionless green space and large-scale roads. For them, Harlow was no different from the sprawling inter-war suburban housing estates developed by the London County Council. Although Harlow had the country’s first housing tower block (The Lawn, 1950) most of the town’s housing was made up of conventional two-story terrace houses and low-rise flats. Perhaps that’s why Le Corbusier, the champion of modern urban high-rise housing, refused to visit Harlow when he was in England for the 1951 meeting of the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne. But Gibberd was not only working on the basis of the housing densities proposed by the committee which set up the new town program (as low as four dwellings per hectare, compared to today’s standard of thirty or more) but also his own inclinations. He was trained as an architect, and has a long list or major projects including Terminal Buildings at Heathrow Airport (1950-1969), The Central London Mosque in Regent’s Park (1977). His most famous building is probably Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral (1967), a strikingly original structure popularly known as ‘Paddy’s Wigwam’. But his vision for Harlow incorporated much more than just the buildings and roads. He recognized the importance of context, and encouraged the emergence of landscape architecture as a specialty in its own right. The garden he created around his home east of Harlow on the banks of the River Stort is considered one of the best examples of the 20th century garden in the country. Gibberd worked with landscape designer Sylvia Crowe to create a genius loci, i.e. sense of place, in Harlow, that would meet Ebenezer Howard’s vision of a union of countryside and town. Dame Sylvia, who was landscape advisor to the Development Corporation for 26 years from 1947 to 1973, added mounds and hills to the previously flat landscape using the lmaterial excavated during construction of the New Town. She was also responsible for the landscape design in the majority of the residential areas, and designed play spaces, open recreational areas and the settings for many of the industrial buildings.

Design Concepts Underlying The Plan

The design of Harlow is based on two fundamental planning concepts that were then The Plan of Harlowconsidered essential to modern design: the neighbourhood concept, and the separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Both of these could be fully implemented only in the context of a new town. Neighbourhoods were to be large enough to support the efficient operation of local schools and retail facilities. Depending on the source, the ideal number of residents could be anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000. They should be separated from each other by green spaces through which would run arterial connector roads, thus keeping through traffic on the periphery. Within the neighbourhood, pedestrians would be accommodated on sidewalks and footpaths, cyclists on dedicated cycle tracks and local traffic on narrow roads. Critics have argued that traditional street patterns handle large volumes of traffic more efficiently, but the notion of car-free neighbourhoods, based on the so-called Radburn Plan, had a huge impact on the nature of place created in Harlow.

cycle Tracks: Netteswell Road and the connection to South Road Latton Road cycle track under Second Avenue, and the Arkwright Clock Tower (1864) bearing the motto 'Work While It Is Day' at Puffer's Green

The original Harlow plan was based on seven neighbourhoods located in four large quadrants. Three of them have their own neighbourhood retail centre: The Stow, Bush Fair and Staple Tye. The fourth quadrant, containing Hare Street and Little Parndon) is served by The High, the town centre which serves as Harlow’s principal retail and administrative centre. Old Harlow continues to be served by its High Street which was redeveloped and pedestrianized in 1971. All the original residents had easy walking access to one of the 17 small ‘hatches’ which provided daily necessities, and most a pub. Each neighbourhood had at least one primary school, accessible by pedestrian and bike paths.

The Town Centre site, 1954 The Town Centre under construction, 1958 Harlow Town Hall and the Town Centre from the south-east, ca. 1966
Clifton Hatch, 1977 Burgoyne Hatch, 2010 Ward Hatch, 2007


The M11 was originally supposed to run along the west and north sides of the town, so Gibberd placed the two industrial areas, The Pinnacles and Temple Fields there. But then in 1964 the government announced that the M11 would be located on the east side. Gibberd protested, saying this was akin to planning a sea-side town, and them moving the sea, but the government wanted a more direct route to Stansted airport, and the traffic congestion along Edinburgh Way, the main east-west spine road in the north of the town is a result of this relocation as well as the decision to provide only one interchange with the M11 and to place it far to the south of the town.

Early Industry In Harlow

Harlow benefited in the early days from the decision of some large firms to move to the town, giving it a resilience that some other new towns, with a smaller range of employers, lacked. These included Gilbeys Distillers, United Glass, Longman’s Publishing, Revertex (synthetic resins), Schreibers (furniture), Johnson Matthey Metals and Standard Telecommunication Laboratories. The latter, which eventually became Northern Telecom (Nortel) employed 3,000 people at its peak. Unfortunately all but Longman’s (now part of Pearson Educational) are now gone. The Development Corporation also catered to smaller employers by building small, modular industrial premises that were available for lease in varying sizes for smaller firms. Many of these units are still in use along South road in Templefields, and in parts of The Pinnacles.

Original industrial units built by the Harlow Development Corporation in South Road Harlow Town Station (left) and Longman House. Longman House, 1994
Gilbey's Distillery, aerial view Gilbey's, 1964 Gilbey's Distillery at night.
  A copper gin still from the Gilbey distillery, now in the gardens of the Museum of Harlow.  

There are too many aspects of Harlow New Town (now simply ‘Harlow’) to be dealt with in this website. Those interested in further details should consult some of the sources listed in the bibliography. But I want to include short discussions of a few particular developments in the town in order to illustrate something of the its history. To read them, go to the second page of this New Town section.


Table of Contents
Harlow's History and Geography
Introduction & The Origins of Harlow The Structure of Harlow Industry

Second World War Airfields
Walks Around Harlow
Market Street & St. John's Walk Fore Street, Park Hill, London & Station Roads High Street
Churchgate Street
Harlow New Town
The Origins of the New Town Programme Important Developments in Harlow New Town
References & Acknowledgements
Photo Gallery