The New Town Legacy

Many planners and architects have judged the English New Towns to be a generally successful, but never-to-be-repeated experiment in regional planning and social engineering. However they have been severely criticized by many of those who lived in, or close to them as unnecessarily ugly and inhospitable. It is unfair to judge them from the perspective of the 21st century. What it felt like to move to a New Town must be understood in the context of the circumstances their inhabitants left behind. For most new arrivals, the majority of them newly-married couples, the opportunity to move out of a home shared with parents and in-laws in the overcrowded inner city was a blessed relief. The collective will of residents to make them work gave the early new towns a communicate spirit impossible to understand today. Despite indifference from the central government and the public at large, the New Towns ultimately succeeded because their residents wanted them to work. (Alexander, 2009: 104). New towns could succeed only if people had faith that they would. And in the heady days of post-war optimism, many did.

One of the explicit goals of The New Towns Programme was to improve the housing conditions faced by working-class residents of inner cities, especially London. Another was to assist economically depressed rural areas through managed relocation of industry and workers. An implicit goal was to help rebuild the war-shattered economy, encourage and facilitate the transformation of British industry and, by so doing, promote a positive image of the country abroad. All these goals were met to some extent.

But critics have focussed on the unintended, unforeseen and to some extent unpredictable shortcomings of the New Jerusalem. The New Town programme, and indeed the development of post-war planning in general, was based on the notion that urban problems could, and would be solved by the application of rational, scientific reasoning. The Central Government be worried that the huge financial investment would not produce a commensurate return, and that attempts to solve existing urban problems would lead to further unintended side-effects. Many of the observed problems were more the fault of global-scale economic transformations than anything local, but by the end of the Seventies times had changed to the point that shutting down the development corporations was seen as the best option. The plug was pulled in 1981 partly because Ebenezer Howard’s original intention of allowing an independent entity to control a whole town was anathema to the sensibilities of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government which came to power in 1979. But the legacy of the brave pioneers lives on. The towns, no longer ‘new’, continue to provide housing, social services, jobs, parks and recreation facilities – just as they were supposed to. Geographer, historian and planner Sir Peter Hall provides a fitting epitaph:

They do exist in harmony with the surrounding countryside, and the sheer mindless ugliness of the worst of the old sprawl has been eliminated. But is not quite as rich and worthy and high-minded as had been hoped: a good life, but not a new civilization. Perhaps the place was wrong: the English, those archetypically cosy people of low expectations, were the last people to achieve something different.

Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century (1988): 173.


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