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
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 onethe 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 schoola 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 carcar ownership doubled between 1947
and 1959 and increased by as much again by 1963but 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 problemsfrom
high rents (to cover high infrastructure costs) to unsupervised
parking areasare 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 solvethe pressure for additional
housing in the London and the South East, and the need to create
sustainable and civilised communitiesare 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.