Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Harlow Civic Society (NT 02)


The extent to which the original design of the New Towns is leading to concerns about their long term sustainability


  Harlow New Town was established under the 1946 New Towns Act and provided homes, with all modern conveniences, employment opportunities and a garden city environment for large numbers of people from overcrowded, rundown and often inferior properties situated principally in North London.

  New assets were created in the form of new homes and amenities, community facilities, industrial and commercial properties carefully landscaped on the basis of a town plan.

  The basic design of the town, with green wedges separating its constituent localities and the principle of keeping the main industrial areas apart from residential accommodation was highly successful and should at all costs be preserved. The model is fully sustainable in Harlow as elsewhere if appropriate policies are pursued today.


  Unfortunately, partly due to fundamental changes in the structures of industry in Britain it has not been possible to maintain the original aim of providing jobs for most residents locally. It was originally hoped that most people would walk or cycle to work and a pattern of cycle tracks was provided. There has, however, been a vast increase in the use of cars, not merely to get to work within the town but also to travel in from outside locations and out to work elsewhere. In addition there has been a great increase in the number of heavy goods vehicles using the roads, escalated in particular by the redevelopment of the industrial areas to site a large number of warehouses and retail outlets.

  When Harlow New Town was conceived, the intention was to provide the principal north-south trunk road (now designated the M11) to the west of the town. The M11 was, however, built to the east of the town, in conflict with the original town plan. One consequence is that the A414 runs through the town, adding still more to the pressures on local traffic routes. Ideally, the A414 should bypass the town, to the North.

  What has occurred in Harlow illustrates the importance of keeping the original town design in view when further development and redevelopment takes place. Future plans should not be implemented without ensuring that the additional traffic generated can be accommodated.

Green Spaces

  New towns in general, and Harlow in particular, have more open spaces to maintain than the average town. These are great assets, which need to be preserved and enhanced. It is, however, only recently that the additional financial burden of maintaining this space has been recognised as an element in determining the standard spending assessment. Meanwhile, pressure to reduce costs continues and is leading to a reduction in the quality of the landscaping. If standards are not to fall further with adverse effects on the environment in new towns, it is of paramount importance to take steps to reduce this trend.

Retail Development

  Development of the large retail units common today has not been generally possible in the original town centre and shopping areas. This has resulted in the movement of retailing facilities to out-of-town centre locations, with a consequent negative effect on trade in the existing town centre and neighbourhood shopping areas. Parts of the industrial area have now become retail orientated. Thus, the original plans have been breached, posing the problem of town centre redevelopment.


  In theory this may be reduced by encouraging people to make local journeys on public transport, by cycle, or on foot. Encouraging children to walk to and from school where possible could theoretically reduce the number of car journeys at peak times. However, it is not realistic to expect a significant response to such appeals.

  There is undoubtedly a great need for proper traffic regulations which are fully enforced, and for adequate public transport services providing also for people who wish to use them at relatively unsocial hours and those living away from the main routes.

  It is, however, vital in new developments or redevelopment to bear in mind the point made earlier that plans to accommodate the traffic generated must be included. If this cannot be done, the development must be modified or dropped.


  There is a need for new developments to be designed from the outset as integral parts of the town. In the case of building Church Langley in Harlow, the ethos was quite different, suggesting it was a separate entity—a new village development—which has left a permanent impression on the minds of many residents that they are somehow separate from Harlow. This was a mistake to be avoided in further redevelopment or expansion of the town, which must surely apply in all other new towns.

  Retail facilities as developed and planned should be sufficient to meet the needs of the population, even if it increases.

  There is a need to regenerate sports and cultural facilities which will, of course, require funding. Some schemes for redevelopment, however, fail to respect the principles of the town plan. One proposal in Harlow (now dropped) was for siting a new sports centre in the Town Park, which would have detracted from this amenity. This generated much opposition. Other proposals—particularly in view of the need today to raise the necessary funds—involve sales of public land to developers and/or the granting of planning permission for developments totally out of accord with the original town plan. These should be resisted.

  Regeneration of sports and cultural facilities should not be allowed to override the original design of the town.

  Lack of Housing for Succeeding Generations

  One major failure in providing for sustainability of the New Town is in the paucity of accommodation for succeeding generations on low or moderate incomes.

  The provision of more accommodation at rents or prices that such people can afford is necessary. This could be helped by increasing the number of attractive smaller properties into which older people may move, if they wish, when their families have grown up and left home. More under-occupied houses would thus become available for the use of those in need of more space.


Whether social exclusion in New Towns is being exacerbated by the current Government approach to regeneration and neighbourhood renewal, in particular in relation to small pockets of deprivation

  In Harlow, there has been a considerable increase in the number of single-parent families and socially deprived groups but, on the whole, excessive concentration in particular areas has been avoided. Most areas have had a mixture of dwellings from the beginning and wherever particular estates or neighbourhoods have tended to be in need of renewal or in danger of becoming rundown, regeneration schemes have been put in hand by the local authority. Thus it has been possible to avoid a situation in which all those able to do so move out of a particular locality, leaving it to degenerate further.

  Social exclusion can, therefore, be prevented by good maintenance, regeneration and renewal—provided the mixture of dwellings is maintained. It is not automatically exacerbated.


Issues relating to organisations and regulations operating in New Towns

  3.1  The Consequences of English Partnerships' Control of the Land Supply and its rôle in the Planning System

  English Partnerships' principal motive has been to maximise income from rents and the sale of property. It was not charged with the responsibility of maintaining the original designs of the New Towns. In fact, English Partnerships' predecessor, the New Towns Commission, added to the pressures on Harlow industrialists and other business people by raising rents and disposing of properties to organisations concerned to maximise the return on their investments. This was originally a factor—though not the only one—leading to a loss of industrial employment and redevelopment of much of the industrial area for retail and warehouse purposes.

  In other areas, problems have been created by English Partnerships' insensitive management of some of its interests in Harlow. For example, part of the open space in front of Moot House Community Centre was needlessly fenced off; a social housing project was held up by the fee originally demanded. There are also small pieces of land owned by English Partnerships, which cannot be properly managed.

  The continued ownership of open land not for development by English Partnerships is unnecessary and illogical. All such land, whether small unmanageable pieces or large open areas, should be transferred to the ownership of the local authority.

  3.2  The Effect of the Transfer of Assets and Liabilities to Local Authorities

  The spirit of the 1946 New Towns Act was that assets would eventually be

transferred to the local authority. Although some were, Harlow and other New Towns were deprived of the advantages of Letchworth, a prototype of the New Towns, as a result of transferring so much to the New Towns Commission—now English Partnerships.

  Housing was, however, transferred—at existing debt with no adequate provisions for meeting the costs of maintenance, outstanding repairs and renewal. As a result, the local authority has been faced with daunting financial problems in seeking to regenerate areas which were in danger of becoming rundown and in keeping abreast of repairs.

  Grants, at the very least equal to those available to private organisations which take over local authority housing, should be made available to New Town local authorities to assist them in catching up with the backlog of repairs. In Harlow, the total cost is now estimated at £47 million.

  Industrial, commercial and retail freeholds, for the most part, were not transferred to the New Town local authorities and may have been sold several times over since they were first vested in the New Towns Commission. This places the local authority at a disadvantage in projects for renewal and redevelopment. In Harlow, the local authority has succeeded in securing agreement to a plan for the redevelopment of the Town Centre South by negotiation with developers and freeholders. Its position on redevelopment and renewal throughout the town, however, would have been much stronger had the assets transferred to English Partnerships been vested in it.

  3.3  The rôle of Local Authorities, Residual Bodies and non-Departmental Public Bodies in Promoting Sustainable Regeneration in New Towns

  The rôle of the local authority, as the democratic authority elected by and reflecting the interests of those who live in the town, must surely be that of the prime mover in promoting sustainable regeneration. Today, however, the problems of securing the finance necessary from outside developers may put the local council in the position of being forced to give way on basic features of the original design to enable regeneration to take place. Some desirable schemes may be totally inhibited. It is important that full support be accorded to local authorities seeking to maintain the basic features of their town design plan. The architects and designers should be responsible to them rather than the developers. Alternative sources of finance are required to avoid total dependence on private developers.

  Other non-departmental public bodies are in one way or another involved in redevelopment in Harlow—eg Harlow Health Centres Trust, Harlow Sports Trust, the Primary Care Trust, and the 2020 Partnership. It is desirable that such bodies work closely with the local authority and that their plans are compatible with over all planning objectives.


The role of New Towns in their regional economies in both the industrial/commercial and housing markets and their effect on surrounding conurbations

  Harlow serves as a regional focal point for shopping needs, commercial services and employment, not only for its own residents but also for many that live in surrounding areas. Many young people who attend Harlow schools and the tertiary college come from outside the town, as do many patients treated at Princess Alexandra Hospital.

  Within limits, this is entirely reasonable and desirable, but it should not be the objective to provide within the New Town all the facilities which could be provided, or are already provided, in nearby communities.

  The need to ensure that a New Town remains a desirable place to live must never be forgotten. Furthermore, some facilities should be within easy reach of where people live outside the town.


Whether the Government should change its policy in respect of design, regeneration and social inclusion in the New Towns

  The basic success of the New Towns should be fully recognised. The advantage of planning has been vindicated. Although the model did not meet with universal approval when it was launched at the end of the Second World War, the investment of public funds generated new communities, new employment opportunities, new businesses and a good quality of life for most of the residents.

  The Government should accordingly recognise the need for the basic designs of New Towns to be respected. Regeneration and renewal is, of course, necessary, but the aim should be to preserve and enhance all the positive aspects of what has been achieved. If the area devoted to housing, industrial, commercial, or sports purposes is to be substantially expanded, an extension of the town boundaries should be considered. It is totally unacceptable for large-scale new development to be sited on green wedges or open space.

  It is, furthermore, important to ensure that New Town local authorities receive sufficient financial support to enable them to maintain the standards originally set, which is not the position at the present time. Greater financial resources should be made available.

  The New Town model, which grew out of the idea of the garden city, is still valid today. The aim should be to maintain and enhance the New Towns and to recognise that the concepts on which they are based apply at the present time as much as they did half a century ago.

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Prepared 16 April 2002