Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by The Garden History Society (NT 19)


  1.1  The Garden History Society is the national amenity society for the conservation of historic parks, gardens and designed landscapes, and a statutory consultee on planning applications affecting parks and gardens on the national Register of parks and gardens of special historic interest. We are particularly interested in the Committee's investigation of, as described in the terms of reference, "the extent to which the original design of the New Towns is leading to concern about their long term sustainability", and of "the balance between new development and the regeneration of older parts of the towns".


  2.1  The development of the New Towns in the post-war period attracted the brightest and most able landscape designers of their generation people like Dame Sylvia Crowe (1901-97), who worked with the architect/planner Sir Frederick Gibberd (1908-84) at Harlow, and also at Basildon; Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe (1900-96) who prepared the masterplan for Hemel Hempstead; Brenda Colvin (1897-1981) at East Kilbride; Frank Clark (1902-71) at Stevenage and Peter Youngman at Cumbernauld. They made strenuous efforts to involve themselves in the planning from the earliest stages the Institute of Landscape Architects' evidence to the New Towns Committee in 1946 referred to the "framework" of hills and trees and described the "topographical formation" as "the very skeleton of the plan with ribs of high ground and woods".

  2.2  We would like to stress the very strong and pervasive design element which went into the landscape of New Towns, not least because, as it was so pervasive and composed so as to appear "natural", it can be difficult to see today. Thus, while on the one hand Jellicoe admired the Gibberd plan for Harlow as an abstract composition like a painting by Ben Nicholson, Crowe admired "the idea of open space and landscape flowing between compact housing areas" and admired the result on the ground "a lovely, very humanised landscape with a lot of little woodlands which Gibberd conserved in the masterplan". What Gibberd and Crowe achieved was a new landscape for new lives but one created through sensitive and understanding of the existing landform and features.

  2.3  It is also important to stress that this "landscape without boundaries" is quite distinct from the set pieces, such as the Water Gardens in the Civic Square at Harlow. In addition to the use of existing landforms and features as the framework to the New Towns, Crowe also worked on artificial hills and mass planting to separate residential and industrial areas and to ensure that features such as gasometers sat "naturally" in the landscape.

  2.4  The scale of landscape design in the New Towns was often massive. While of Jellicoe's masterplan for Hemel Hempstead only his Water Gardens were eventually built, at East Kilbride Colvin worked on a massive scale, planting "a continuous forest belt round the south and west of the built up area"; similarly Crowe created mass planting at Warrington and Washington, while at Telford the recovery of Ironbridge was included in the landscaping, and at Milton Keynes, over 15 million trees and shrubs were planted with several new parks and lakes and a network of landscaped roads.

  2.5  The New Towns embody what has been called "an unshakeable commitment to design that a good physical environment was good for people and also good for business". The green environment, whether its design was noticed or not, has repeatedly been one of the key features in the liveability of New Towns people who moved to Warrington from Liverpool or Manchester wrote to the manager to say how pleased they were to be "living in the countryside"; at Redditch, research by Shelagh Bussey on perceptions of the town highlighted the importance of the woodland of the town it was a major reason for people chosing to live there and to individual parts of which residents became very attached.


  3.1  The biggest threat to these landscapes is a lack of understanding of their designed nature. It is essential that in planning new development in New Towns the original spatial master-planning is carefully identified and assessed. Without such analysis there is a danger that the very real but subtle contribution which it makes to the environmental quality of New Towns will be damaged designed gaps and vistas blocked off whether by buildings or new planting, links between the town centres and the wider countryside severed, and the spacious flowing character of the spaces confined or cramped. Changes in the scale of buildings can affect the benevolent character of the spaces, as can ad hoc removal or replacement of hard-landscape features or planting. As with Victorian architecture in the 60s, we are too close to the post-war period properly to appreciate its vision, which was profoundly democratic and public-spirited, and could easily damage it unknowingly.


  4.1  The Garden History Society has been particularly concerned about the destruction of the core of Harlow New Town, which is arguably the most successful of the all the New Towns in the terms described above. We believe that the regeneration plans are misguided and will result in a serious diminution of its special character and its environmental quality and distinctiveness.

  4.2  The masterplan by Frederick Gibberd was prepared in 1947 and the work was not completed until 1960; yet when it was much of his vision of zones interlinked by landscape in a comprehensive design was realized. Gibberd was a socialist and a lover of the English countryside and his design not only created a civic realm which dignified its inhabitants but which also flowed outward into the Essex landscape, and allowed that same landscape to flow up to and through the New Town.

  4.3  The Civic Square and Town Hall was the centrepiece of the New Town—the most important building in the most important space. Via the Water Gardens drew a green wedge of countryside was drawn into the heart of the piazza at the upper end the Gardens comprise a series of formal terraces with canals, water spouts and geometric compartments divided by an intricate pattern of yew hedges. This overlooks the "Great Lawn" before the view widens into a panorama of open countryside. In form, the layout echoes the sequential design of an aristocratic country house formal gardens, haha and landscape park, but transformed into an urban and democratic context.

  4.4  In 1992 the Gardens were added to the English Heritage Register of parks and gardens of special historic interest, and were later upgraded to II*. However the Register boundary was drawn around the Gardens quite tightly and could not do justice to the relationship between the Gardens, the buildings in the Square and the open views. Although Conservation Area designation could have been considered for the Square, boundary lines would still have been problematic and it would have been unprecedented in the absence of any listed buildings. Moreover the lack of research on post-war buildings and landscapes made evaluation difficult, even though the quality of the place was evident to any visitor or inhabitant.

  4.5  Proposals for redevelopment of the Town Centre South, which includes the Civic Square were included in the development plan prior to registration of the Gardens, even though Sylvia Crowe advised the authority that "to destroy these gardens in order to increase the area of retail trade would be an act of vandalism" EH objected to a renewal of consent for the redevelopment in 1992, and as a result the local authority resolved that a "comprehensive design brief should be prepared in order to safeguard and protect the water garden and its setting and to help achieve a scheme of the highest quality for this important town centre site". However, the gardens were viewed in isolation. Despite objections from the GHS and the Twentieth Century Society the Technical College was demolished and replaced with housing, and the renewal of the outline redevelopment scheme was approved in 1996-97 with a serious lack of consultation.

  4.6  It was not until the authority's draft brief emerged in 1997, with the statement that "there may be an opportunity to relocate the formal Water Gardens" that the threat to the Gardens themselves as well as the overall design was recognised. By this date the condition of the Gardens had deteriorated significantly and the juggernaut of commercial redevelopment, including the demolition of half the Gardens and development that will destroy the relationship between the Square and the countryside beyond, seems unstoppable—a request last year from EH and the GHS for a call-in was rejected by the Secretary of State.

  4.7  Harlow illustrates the problem of New Town landscapes they are under-recognised not only by local authorities but also by English Heritage (only Harlow is registered; even though Jellicoe's Water Gardens at Hemel Hempstead for example are directly comparable; and Jellicoe's Civic Square in Plymouth, is the only other post-war civic landscape on the Register). This makes them vulnerable the Gardens at Hemel Hempstead have been harmed by the development of decked levels on the original ground-level carparks adjacent to the Gardens; the original curvilinear paving in the Plymouth square is currently being replaced with rectangular slabs). They pose particular difficulties for the existing conservation-regime they are not easily given boundaries on a map, and yet their contribution to the environment is such that some means of identifying them needs to be developed by EH.

  4.8  Given the currency of ideas on the public realm and civic space, it is important to realise that these concepts have been given form in the communal landscapes of the New Towns unparallelled design thinking and resources went into them, and it is reckless to forget or ignore such a historic legacy of ready-made quality environments.


  5.1  The contribution of the post-war generation of landscape-designers to the environmental quality of New Towns is poorly understood and needs to be recognised.

  5.2  The special nature of the New Town landscape—"landscape without boundaries"—needs especially to be understood. Design, often of great subtlety and skill by the best landscape architects of the post-war period, should not be mistaken for nature.

  5.3  New development or redevelopment in New Towns should be on the basis first and foremost of a landscape assessment which should identify the historic landscape elements and their potential for a continued contribution to the environmental quality of New Towns. Such assessments should include an analysis of the original landscape design, as well as its current appearance.

  5.4  English Heritage, as lead body for the historic environment, but perhaps in partnership with CABE, should undertake a study of the buildings and landscapes of New Towns in order to identify their special historic interest, to give guidance on their future conservation and development and to provide research data which will inform decision-making.

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