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 unusual, never to be repeated, combination of circumstances.
The 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
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. Howard's utopian vision was that in the future, 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 Tomorrow. 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.
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 Howard and other like-minded social reformers. Neither up to that time, nor later has anyone, in any country, attempted a project as risky as this one. But, somewhat improbably, their pioneering efforts led to the adoption of 'new towns' as a significant element of 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. His legacy lives on. The Garden City Association, which he founded in 1899, has become the Town and Country Planning Association, 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 inexorable 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 Planning 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.