The New Towns Act of 1946 was an expansive plan that sought to alleviate the housing crisis of the mid-20th century. Poverty and the results of war had left much of Britain’s urban housing stock in disrepair, with thousands of people in need of accommodation. Built in three waves, these developments expanded upon existing towns to alleviate the overcrowding and deprivation that was rife in Britain’s cities.
Once a vision of the future, the new towns of today are seen as boring and mundane, offering little in the way of opportunity for young people and harbouring deep socio-economic division across postcodes.
New Towns were preceded by the garden city movement of the early-20th century, a form of urban planning that surrounded communities with ‘greenbelts’. The benefits of green space were realised by Ebenezer Howard in 1898, whose model for garden cities was used when creating Letchworth, Brentham Garden Suburb and Welwyn Garden City, along with countless other examples across the world. A concentric model, each urban conurbation is surrounded by open spaces and public parks. His book, released in 1898, sold enough copies to warrant a second edition and its popularity provided him with the support to pursue the first garden city development.
With a lack of government support for the developments, Howard was recalled saying ‘the only way to get anything done is to do it yourself’. His frustration with a lack of funding for his proposed solution to the ills of urban housing, led Howard to borrow money from any available source. The first development of Letchworth, founded by the Garden City Association in 1899, targeted investment from working class cooperative organisations. Howard’s garden cities were to be built for workers and strove to provide affordable housing to working class people, subsequently improving their quality of life. In failing to gain investment from a working class organisation. Howard had to reach out to wealthy investors and thus accepted concessions to his plan, such as no landlords and short-term rent increases.
Once funding was acquired, a competition was run to find a suitable architect for the Letchworth settlement. 34 miles outside of London, architects Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker planned the town that sits at the centre of the Letchworth estate. Ignoring Howard’s symmetric ring design, the planners preserved the idea of a large agricultural greenbelt and shared in his desire to provide the working classes with better and more affordable housing. Despite being a private development, Letchworth was a financial success, providing ‘housing, employment, shopping and community services’ to residents in ‘the open, green suburban fashion envisioned by Howard’.
Ebenezer Howard’s ‘Garden Cities of Tomorrow’ exhibited theories that would be utilised in later developments. The London County Council, forced into drawing its attention to the fringes of the city because of rising land and labour costs, began to form the first suburban cottage estates. The new suburbs, made feasible by the expansion of London’s transport infrastructure, were cheaper to build and offered an alternative to the dense inner city. The likes of the White Hart Lane and Totterdown estates were successful in sustaining the popularity of garden city theory. Unwin, responsible for the development of Letchworth, also worked on Hampstead Garden Suburb where he built cottages for ‘superior artisans’. The Roehampton cottage estate that opened in 1921 captured the essence of the garden city; featuring a 146 acre park, 1,118 houses, 94 flats, a playground, allotments and a large shopping parade, it was the best example of a garden city in the Greater London area. The Becontree estate, lauded as the ‘largest municipal housing estate in the world’, suffered from financial restrictions and poor build quality.
The importance of green spaces and the ‘greenbelt’ made the new towns a pioneering development practice; one that has inspired modern eco-settlements around the world. Large public green spaces are favoured over individual family gardens, creating the feeling associated with life in the ‘rural idyll’ and subsequently not wasting sizeable plots of land for front and rear gardens. Trees and grass line the main traffic arteries of many new towns, with animals sometimes grazing within ‘a few hundred yards’ of central shopping centres. These pockets of green space help to soften the harshness of the unimaginative building design that dominates much of the landscape in these towns.
Spirited by the possibility of success in manufacturing new towns, the first wave of development in enacting the New Towns Act got underway. The initial developments were built to alleviate housing shortages in London, building into the green belt that surrounded the city. There were additional sites agreed in the north of England, in close proximity to Durham, Sunderland and Darlington. Towns that were developed in the first wave included Stevenage, Crawley, Hemel Hempstead and Bracknell.
Two decades later, between 1961 - 1964, further housing shortfalls led to the development of new towns across the country. Telford in Shropshire, then known as Dawley New Town, was formed by connecting a series of rural towns via a central municipal area. In Cheshire and Lancashire, the conurbations of Skelmersdale and Runcorn were developed to accommodate for the overspill of Liverpool’s population.
A final wave of new towns arrived in the late 1960s. Dawley New Town became Telford, consisting of a greater area than previously planned to house overspill from the rapidly expanding Birmingham city area. In this swathe of development, one of the most famous examples of new town building was birthed. Milton Keynes consumed the villages of Bletchley, Wolverton and Stony Stratford; the first ‘new city’, it was to be home to 250,000 people. Based around a relaxed grid system, the development corporation decided on a ‘softer, human-scaled landscape’, though it has been defined by modernist architecture that has been widely critiqued for being harsh and unliveable. Francis Tibbalds of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) called Milton Keynes ‘bland, boring, sterile and totally boring’, with those involved in its development blaming weaknesses on poor execution. The town is a successful example of a new settlement created by the New Towns Act, with a new municipal area with separate and thriving economy forming in close proximity to London, Oxford and Birmingham. Its flaws are evident however in the clear socio-economic divides that prevail. Despite a thriving local industry, areas of affluence and deprivation can be found in close proximity, with The Community Foundation labelling it a ‘Tale of Two Cities’.
Under post-war legislation, the new towns were developed by public corporations and funded by the government. Roads and public utilities were largely paid for by local government, whereas the building of homes, offices and municipal buildings was tasked to private companies, overseen by the new town corporation. Loans from the government were then paid off from the sales of houses, in turn funding future new town developments.
To bolster the chance of success for the new towns, town planners arranged the transfer of willing businesses to new homes. From London’s East End to Stevenage, or from slums in Liverpool to the development of Runcorn, subsidised rents and lower taxation encouraged business owners to change tact. At one time, hopeful residents could only move into the new towns with the promise of work from a local employer. The nature of employment in the new towns, often technological and clerical, meant that these new urban spaces became dominated by white-collar and skilled workers. A segregation was established, excluding non-white people and immigrant populations, leaving no place for workers of non-skilled roles. The sameness and monotony created by this segregation left an indelible imprint in the minds of outsiders, whose opinions of spaces like Milton Keynes have been unchanged for decades.
The new towns were grand in their ambition, but their flawed execution led to failings along the way. Thatcher's Right to Buy scheme and a general lack of care and attention from developers has created divisions, allowing deprivation to manifest. The people of the new towns hold a sense of pride, often recounting tales of their upbringing with fondness. The new towns may still prove successful in the coming decades.