Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by English Heritage (NT 37)

  1.  English Heritage welcomes the opportunity to submit a memorandum to the Urban Affairs Sub-committee inquiry into New Towns. Conceived at a time when there was relatively little new building in Europe, the UK's post-war New Towns achieved international renown as "the greatest conscious programme of city building ever undertaken by any country in history"1 Like all social innovations, they have had a mixed history. Where they have worked well, it has often been because of the sensitivity of the original masterplan, its responsiveness to the existing topography and settlement pattern and the quality of its landscape design.

  2.  One or two generations on, the Towns have matured and gained their own momentum, and change in response to new social and economic conditions is inevitable. However, some of their most positive features may be at risk if the strengths of their original design are forgotten and individual development control decisions are taken without reference to the coherence of their founding vision.

  3.  Although social legislation and the trend towards smaller families gradually improved living conditions during the course of the twentieth century, overcrowded and insanitary housing remained a serious problem throughout the 1940s both in the inner cities and the countryside. Nevertheless, New Towns were not always well received locally, and this hostility, combined with restrictions on funding, resulted in a shaky start for the New Town movement. Some of the first New Towns were nevertheless outstanding. They shared the vision that architecture, planning and landscape design were one—the art of town design. Harlow in particular inherited a quintessentially English sense of the picturesque. New build sits organically in the landscape. The size of neighbourhoods, and the segregation of traffic and pedestrians, meant that children did not have to cross major roads to reach school—a major cause of congestion in older towns. Small areas of houses with common building materials were designed to achieve coherence and intimacy, a sense of identity. Museum-quality art adorned streets and other publicly accessible places.

  4.  Second generation New Towns had to take more account of the car—car ownership doubled between 1947 and 1959 and increased by as much again by 1963—but the incorporation of old buildings and landscape features and the creation of distinctive skylines continued to ensure characterful neighbourhoods. These trends reached their apogee in Milton Keynes, which resembles modern American models of the "urban countryside".

  5.  New Towns have fared unevenly. Some architecturally striking buildings (Stirling's flats at Southgate, Runcorn, for instance) have been demolished, and so have the undistinguished system-built flats at Killingworth. Other problems—from high rents (to cover high infrastructure costs) to unsupervised parking areas—are widespread. But, overall, New Town housing has brought fewer problems than contemporary large-scale housing developments in the inner cities. The successful ingredients appear to be what they were at the outset low density, gardens and privacy, informality, greenery and open space, attractive but undemonstrative architecture. In many cases, buildings may be individually unexceptional but their setting and lay out have been designed with great care and sensitivity. This raises a significant management issue. Careful evaluation of what survives and the principles underlying the design needs to inform future development. Decisions relating to individual buildings or sites should not be made in isolation, since ill-informed change in one place can begin to unravel the coherence of whole neighbourhoods. An example of this is the proposed demolition of Sir Frederick Gibberd's exceptional Water Gardens at Harlow. Their contribution to the wider urban fabric, and how the town worked around and with them, has been overlooked.

  6.  Town centres have suffered disproportionately, partly as a result of poor maintenance, partly because many of them were designed shortly before radical changes in car use and shopping patterns combined to undermine their economic viability. Historic villages incorporated within the New Towns, on the other hand, have often been lovingly restored and revitalised. On balance, the later New Towns (possibly because of the lessons that were learnt from earlier failures, possibly simply because they were better adapted to universal car ownership) appear to have performed better than their forebears.

  7.  New Towns were conceived and designed as a unified whole, embracing architecture, planning and landscape design, and the management of change within them needs to be informed by a similarly unified and comprehensive vision. This needs to be based on a thorough historical understanding and evaluation, not only of their designers' original intentions, but also of the ways they have evolved in response to changing circumstances over the last 25 to 50 years. They were an unusual, largely unprecedented, experiment in social and environmental engineering, and their social, demographic and economic history deserves greater study. This would be particularly valuable given that some of the problems they were designed to solve—the pressure for additional housing in the London and the South East, and the need to create sustainable and civilised communities—are still very much with us in the twenty-first century.

  8.  This brief memorandum is based on unpublished background research by Elain Harwood of English Heritage into the history of the New Town movement in the second half of the twentieth century. We would be happy to make this available to the Committee if it would be useful.


  Leslie Lane, then Director of the Civic Trust, quoted in Colin Ward: New Town, Home Town (London Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 1993), p. 11.

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