The Creation and Design of Harlow New Town

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 be the subject of both praise and criticism for decades to come. Notwithstanding all the practical difficulties, not all of which were forseen, it was decided that the country should embark on the creation of a network of new towns to facilitate the decentralization of industry from Greater London and a re-housing of the ‘excess’ population living in over-crowded, bomb-damaged inner cities. Harlow was one of them.

Garden Cities

On 25 March 1947 the Minister of Town and Country Planning issued a designation order for a new planned community of 60,000 people to be located west of the existing Essex village of Harlow. The decision to build Harlow and seven more new towns around London was an unprecedented leap into the unknown. It was an initiative made possible by a half-century of preparatory work and a very specific, never to be repeated, combination of circumstances.

Ebenezer HowardThe philosophical basis of the 20th century New Town movement was the late 19th century Garden Cities movement which was a reaction against the environmental and social problems found in large, industrialized cities. The idea was formalized in 1898 when Ebenezer Howard published his one and only book Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. In his view, human location was determined by the interaction of three magnets: Town, County and Town-Country. He argued that the forces of these competing attractions could be balanced, and the human condition The cover of Howard's book
could be improved by the construction of planned, self-contained communities surrounded by rural belts. Each would contain a mixture of residential, industrial and agricultural areas, and each would be just large large enough to make possible a full range of social life. The houses were to be laid out at densities lower than the prevailing urban norm so that their occupants could enjoy sunlight, fresh air and garden space, things that the residents of most Victorian terraced houses lacked. When one garden city had grown to its maximum desirable size, another would be founded. He forsaw a time when major cities like London would be surrounded by a ring of such new town. 

Howard’s book was reprinted in 1901 under the new title Garden Cities of Garden CitiesTomorrow. The change in title was significant. Howard hadn’t intended that his book would be used solely to provide the blueprint for the physical planning of new towns. In fact the details of internal town layout are rather vaguely discussed. The central argument of his book was that garden cities would be successful only if they adopted a style of governance based on private, rather than government initiative; and communal, cooperative effort. The revised title reflected the conviction of many of Howard’s influential backers that while England might be willing to embrace the goal of better planning for urban areas by creating ‘garden cities’ it wasn’t ready for a social revolution.

Three MagnetsGarden City planGC group
 WGC poster 


Under Howard’s leadership the Garden City Association succeeded in building two garden cities by private subscription: Letchworth (1902) and Welwyn Garden City (1920). Both were hampered by a shortage of funds due to the fact that, in accordance with a central tenet of Howard’s argument, government financial support was neither sought nor accepted. However they serve 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.

In recognition of his contribution to urban planning, Howard was made an Officer of the British Empire in (OBE) in 1924 and a Knight Bachelor in 1927. And his legacy lives on. The Garden City Association, which he founded in 1899, has become the Town and Country Planning Association, the Britain’s oldest charity concerned with planning, housing and the environment.

The New Town programme

Britain’s mid-20th century New Town Programme owes its existence to the confluence of three particular events.

1. The first was the development of planning as a profession, partly as a result of the creation of the Town and Country Planning Association. The TCPA successfully lobbied for the development and imposition of a rational, national-scale planning system, one element of which would be new towns. Many of 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 while large-scale suburban developments were considered by many social critics as harbingers of unstoppable urban growth, the much-needed redevelopment of cities was hindered by the size and poverty of the population living in the inner core. Rehousing this population in situ would inevitably mean the building of large numbers of high-rise flats. These were abhorred, not only by contemporary ‘light and air’ planners, but also by most of their prospective residents.

A principal recommendation of the Barlow Commission was a policy of ‘planned decentralisation’ of population and industry. Another recommendation, the only one taken up in the short term, was the creation of a new central planning authority. The Ministry of Town and Country Abercrombie planPlanning was created in 1943 and given the responsibility of overseeing the post-War reconstruction of Britain. That same year Professor Patrick Abercrombie, a member of the Barlow Commission, was asked to prepare a plan for the Greater London Area. It 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 , which were to be proper towns, providing employment and services, jot just housing.

2. The War was the second event. 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.

3. The third event 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 New Town

The 6,400 acres which formed the site of Harlow New Town lay west of the Expropriated areaexisting 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, Burnt Mill, and in scattered farm cottages. Many of the local landowners were bitterly opposed to the idea of 60,000 people being parachuted into their corner of the world from the East End of London, along with the 20,000 houses that would be needed to accommodate them. They, and many of the local shopkeepers joined together to create the Harlow and District Defence Association in 1946 to fight the proposal. 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.

Harlow Defence AssociationDance Social

The New Towns were an important part of the new government’s policy, and the objections of the landowners were futile. However, the dislike of the new town and the suspicion that it would continue to expand into the Anti-Harlow, Roydonsurrounding 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 although two new neighbourhoods (Sumners and Katherines) were built on the west side of the town in the mid-1970s. 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 recently-approved, but not-yet-undertaken plan to build 1,200 new houses along Marsh Lane, east of Old Harlow and on the doorstep of the Gibberd Garden is still a source of animosity among those who see such developments as antithetical to the original ideas behind the plan for Harlow and a threat to the farmland which surrounds Harlow and was intended to prevent future expansion of the town. However, if the town is to grow, and if planning permission to extend its boundary into the metropolitan green belt is not obtained, then the new development which has been mandated by the central government 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.

Stop Gilden Way Development posterGilden Way plan

The alternative is to develop areas outside Harlow's boundaries, but there vociferous and widespread opposition to any such suggestion. More than a decade ago proposals for 10,000 new homes in a development across the Stort in Hertfordshire called Harlow North were first unveiled, and have been vigorously opposed ever since and are not currently active. In December 2016 East Herts Council approved plans for 10,000 new homes in the Gilston Park Estate and incorporated the proposal in its draft local plan. There was immediate opposition to the proposal, but it is too early to know whether the concerns expressed by the opponents will be sufficient to stop the development

Sir Frederick Gibberd and 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).

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. All the rest were narrow, often unpaved 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 was 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.

Harlow has the distinction of being the only one of the New Towns in whichGibberd the master planner lived in it for the entire period of its development. Sir Frederick Gibberd, who has been described 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.

Gibberd’s goal was to help house some of the people who were to be displaced from London and other towns in the South East of England in genuine, well-designed communities, with good services and amenities, while protecting and where possible enhancing, environmental quality. More than a half-century from now, our current planning orthodoxies may turn out to be no better founded than those of Gibberd and his collaborators. The contemporary push to apply ‘Smart Growth’ principles and other new urban design ideas are just as likely to lead to the creation of places that fail the criteria of meeting future needs as the New Towns are said to have done.

Harlow, like all the other 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, much less 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.

Second AvenueA fundamental assumption of Gibberd’s plan was that Harlow would be a town, not a rural village, although there was to be lots of well-integraged open space to separate residential neighbourhoods and commercial zones. In spite of that, critics later said that its density was too low. But the economics of building a town on previously agricultural land made possible the (relatively) lower densities that many people wanted. And, given their Garden City heritage, it isn’t surprising that the presumed health benefits of open countryside would be incorporated into the new towns.

In 1953 Gordon Cullen and J.M. Richards published articles in the Architectural Review complaining about 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.

Gibberd 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, or sense of place that would meet Ebenezer Howard’s vision of a union of countryside and town. Dame Sylvia, who was landscape advisor to the Harlow Development Corporation for 26 years from 1947 to 1973, added mounds and hills to the previously flat landscape using the material 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

New Town PlanTwo of Harlow’s basic planning concepts were essential components of post-war modernist design: the neighbourhood concept, and the separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Neither could be fully implemented except in the context of a new town. Neighbourhoods, which were projected by different planners to range from 3,000 to 10,000 in size, were to be large enough to support the efficient operation of local schools and retail facilities. Neighbourhoods were to be separated from each other by green spaces through which arterial connector roads would run. This would keep 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.

Latton Road Clock Tower and Second AvenueNetteswell Road Cycle Track

Harlow was designed to have seven residential 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 town centre that is also the principal retail and administrative centre for all of Harlow. Old Harlow continues to be served by its High Street that 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 usually a pub. Each neighbourhood had at least one primary school, accessible by pedestrian and bike paths.

The HighTown Hall and Town Centre

The M11 was originally supposed to run along the west and north sides of the town, so Gibberd located the two industrial areas accordingly, Pinnacles on the west side and Temple Fields on the north. Unfortunately, the government decided in 1964 that the motorway should be on the east side of the town, on a more direct route to the third London airport at Stansted. Gibberd protested the decision, to no avail, arguing that this made as much sense as planning a sea-side town, and then moving the sea.

The A414 crosses enters Harlow at Junction 7 of the M11, travels north and then crosses Harlow along Edinburgh Way, the main east-west spine road in the north of the town. This road is badly congested, partly because of the decision to relocate the motorway. Heavy goods vehicles travelling from Pinnacles to the motorway are forced to drive right the way across the town. Traffic patterns and levels of congestion have also been affected by the decision to provide only one junction with the M11, south of the centre of the town. In 2016, after at least a decade of deliberation, decided to build a second junction with the M11 half-way between Harlow and Sawbridgeworth, feeding into Gilden Way, will have significant effects on traffic flows and volumes. Whether it will ameliorate the existing problems without causing new ones remains to be seen.

Congestion along Edinburgh Way has also been increased by the central government’s overturning of several Harlow Council’s refusals to grant planning permission for retail and commercial developments in non-traditional locations. As a result, the road is now lined on both sides by ‘big box’ stores and power centres that can only be accessed comfortably and safely by car.

While the industrial and commercial sectors of Harlow generate a lot of vehicular traffic, their presence was not only hoped-for, but anticipated. A principal goal of the New Town strategy was that each town would be self-contained and socially-balanced. This meant that Development Corporations had to attract employers, and to make them as varied as possible, so that employees with a variety of trades and skill levels would be attracted to the town. Significant financial and other incentives were offered to companies, especially large ones, to help achieve this goal.

Harlow was fortunate in being able to attract a number of large employers to the town in the early days. The major firms have included Gilbeys Distillers, United Glass, Longman’s Publishing, Revertex (synthetic resins), Schreibers (furniture), Johnson Matthey Metals and Smith Kline Beecham (pharmaceuticals). Standard Telecommunication Laboratories (STL) that became Northern Telecom and then Nortel.Only Longman’s, now part of Pearson Educational, continues to operate in Harlow. Nortel, a Canadian firm founded in Montreal in 1895, employed 3,000 people in Harlow before its cataclysmic collapse – the largest corporate bankruptcy in Canada - in 2009. The site remained eerily empty until most of the buildings were demolished in 2015. It is now being redeveloped as Kao Park, a data centre and business park that has already attracted Arrow Electronics and Raytheon UK. 

The Nortel site 1Nortel, 2011

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.

small industrial unitsLongman'sLongman House
Gilbey DistilleryGilbeyGilbey Distillery

Not all the interesting characteristics of Harlow New Town can be discussed on this website. Those interested in further details should consult some of the sources listed in the bibliography. But there are a few developments that are sufficiently significant to warrant being mentioned and some details are provided in the ‘Important Developments in Harlow New Town’ section.


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