New Towns as part of Britain's heritage

Posted on June 20, 2019 by Georgia Wrighton

Categories: Film Releases

From October 2018, our innovative film project New Towns, Our Town – Stories on Screen has helped to increase the visibility of, and pride in, the story of the New Town movement. With our feature-length film compilation New Towns, Our Town currently available for bookings across the UK, we asked Georgia Wrighton (@GWrighton), Senior Lecturer and Course Leader for MSc Town Planning at University of Brighton, to reflect on why these valuable towns should be a recognised part of Britain’s heritage.

I was delighted to be asked to write a blog to accompany the ICO’s  film compilation New Towns, Our Town. Following recent public screenings of the film, my brief was to reflect on the story of the New Towns movement, to share the collective social history and pride that existed, so that residents and the wider public can appreciate their very special beginnings. It is high time that New Towns rightfully take their place as a recognised part of Britain’s heritage.

Of all the featured New Towns, I have got to know Harlow best – in fact I was born there – though I worked in Hatfield at the University of Hertfordshire for two years, and also in the Crawley planning department some years ago. I had my childhood theatre debut in the Stevenage Gordon Craig theatre in the late 1970s, and even used the Hemel Hempstead dry ski slope growing up in Hertfordshire! Fast forward to 2019 and my current research at the University of Hertfordshire explores community involvement in planning, and how this has evolved historically in Hatfield and Harlow.

Pisces (1973) by Jesse Watkins in Harlow Town Park. Credit: Ian Helliwell

This January, on my way to a research interview, my partner and I encountered Harlow Town Park for the first time. A few minutes after leaving Harlow train station, admiring its station building on the way, we wandered through the park that beautiful January morning with snow still on the ground. Sauntering along a meandering leafy path, we encountered an elegant stainless steel sculpture in the lake. Checking the Harlow Sculpture Trail Map we saw that it was called Pisces (1973) by sculptor Jesse Watkins. It felt like a real privilege to be in this tranquil park designed by eminent landscape architect Sylvia Crowe in 1957, and to have chanced upon this striking sculpture – the first of a number we were to stumble across that day. In Harlow, designated as a Sculpture Town, famous name sculptors – including Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Elisabeth Frink and Auguste Rodin – have work dotted all over the various neighbourhoods and town centre; unassumingly placed there for the enjoyment and appreciation of visitors and residents alike. It seems strange that beyond Harlow, this world class collection and sculpture trail is seemingly so little known. Sculptures are integrated into the fabric of many of the New Towns, often depicting family or birth scenes, like Joyride (1970) by Franta Belsky in Stevenage Town Square (pictured in the header image), which features in the 1968 film Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.

Title: Joyride (1970) by Franta Belsky in Stevenage Town Square. Credit: Ian Helliwell

New Towns were often promoted to attract families. One of the films in the compilation, Transatlantic Teleview: New Towns in Britain (1956) was made for the American market and informs the viewer that Harlow planners had at the forefront of their minds ‘a woman pushing a pram, with a toddler at her side’. Harlow became known as ‘pram town’ for the high number of children living there – ‘one fifth of the population is under 5 years of age’ – and the film shows parked prams causing congestion on the pavement as young Mums flocked to the modern shopping facilities. No wonder families were attracted to the town with its ground-breaking healthcare – for the first time based in neighbourhoods – a ‘one stop shop’ for new Mums and their babies under the post war National Health Service.

Harlow, The Stow. Credit: Ian Helliwell

Experimentation and innovation in architecture, design and planning, and in science and technology, heralded a brave new world in the post-war period, and is manifested in the fabric of these New Towns. The film Milton Keynes – A Village City (1973) incorporates a sequence of electronic music by 1960s home studio experimenter and Amateur Tape Recording magazine editor FC Judd. It evokes a wider paradigm of innovation and experimentation at the time; a desire to embrace the future in the arts, as well as sciences. Witness the UK’s first high-rise point block at Harlow, The Lawns, inspired by very ‘un-British’ Swedish architecture. Also Harlow had the first post-war Odeon cinema, and the first of the leisure centres as we know them today. Arts, culture and music groups abounded, as illustrated vividly in the short films Faces of Harlow (1964) and The Pied Pipers of Harlow (1965). Sports facilities and open spaces flourished, and community events brought neighbours and residents together – ‘Neighbours meant something to you’, say new residents of Hemel Hempstead in the film Home of Your Own (1951).

The radical post-war Labour government was on a mission: to create whole new communities for bombed-out Londoners; address the housing shortage; give people space to live and breathe away from the problems of city life; and tackle crippling national debt by building new infrastructure. And they really were communities and not just housing. The New Towns were designed to give people the best of urban living – access to jobs close to home, modern shops, schools, leisure facilities, the arts and healthcare – coupled with a sense of community and access to pleasant green spaces offered by rural life. Citizens of Britain were urged to be unselfish in the pursuit of the nation’s aim for making better lives for people; responding perhaps to vociferous protest from residents of the unspoilt countryside earmarked for this social experiment, as reflected at Stevenage in Postscript to Empire: Britain in Transition (1962).

Mural, Stevenage Town Centre. Credit: Ian Helliwell

The state-led programme of planned settlements arising from the New Towns Act 1946, was inspired by the Garden City movement, with Hertfordshire’s Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City (which later became a New Town) setting the standard. Representing a departure from the co-operative model of Garden Cities however, the government gave New Towns a licence to bring in modern forms of architecture and planning, often designed by young architects with a passion and zeal to create something new. Housing minister Lewis Silkin explained to Parliament in his New Towns Bill in 1946, that they would depart from the ‘monotony of the interwar housing estate’, and embody ‘experiments in design as well as in living’. The unprecedented scale of the government’s programme constituted a socialist vision for rebuilding Britain. ‘Towns are about people, and must be built for people’, is a quote from the film Basildon Our Town (1974).

The Development Corporations tasked with the job of putting it into practice, used government loans to build the vision for utopia that Silkin had envisaged. Former war time military men were appointed by government as the peace time directors of Development Corporations; getting the job done and promoting the towns as a new way of living. As Silkin observed, they were commissioned to deliver places that would create ‘a new type of citizen, a healthy, self-respecting, dignified person with a sense of beauty, culture and civic pride’. A mix of social classes would live side by side, initially mostly in rented housing, enjoying arts and culture and previously less accessible sports such as golf. The modern facilities that the New Towns provided were for everyone. As Silkin argued in his parliamentary speech ‘ …when they leave [work] to go home I do not want the better off people to go to the right and the less well-off to go to the left. I want them to ask each other, “Are you going my way?”’.

So what happened? Why are New Towns today places that have a poor image; where many people who can afford to, decide to live elsewhere? How did they come to have the reputation of having got ‘rougher’, ‘boring’ for young people and places where ‘given the chance I’d move out’? (Comments from the film Changing Places: Nearly New Towns (1982)). From their inception, the New Towns’ land ownership and land value capture model was their sustaining lifeblood. The uplift in the value of land as a result of New Town development was ploughed back, enabling investment in their town centres, leisure, sports and community/cultural activities. This is not dissimilar to the model which still exists today at Letchworth Garden City, through land owned by the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation.

However, from the late 1950s, the New Towns had different political masters who sought to remove the layers of the state, and introduce the ‘invisible hand’ of the market to these well-intentioned utopias. Successive administrations dismantled the land ownership model by selling off Development Corporation land to private owners, and eventually handing back to Councils responsibility for these undernourished New Towns. This left them not with land assets now profitable and attractive to the private market, but with the bill for maintaining and paying for its Council housing. The original intention was that all the assets – industry, commerce and housing – would be handed over to the local authority to manage on behalf of the town. According to the Harlow Council Chairman in the film Changing Places: Nearly New Towns (1982), ‘all that we’ve had is the housing; now that might be an asset, but it’s a very expensive asset’.

Not in Anger (1975) by Leon Underwood in The Stow Shopping Precinct, Harlow. Credit: Ian Helliwell

The gradual undermining of New Towns has happened over decades and was accelerated particularly during the 1980s. They originally represented a manifestation of socialism, as depicted in the documentary film New Town Utopia (2018), where Basildon was known as ‘Little Moscow on the Thames’. Conservative governments unpicked their radical roots by attacking the core of New Towns. The loss of land ownership to the private market – preventing money going back into the towns – was compounded by the erosion of Council housing through the Thatcher ‘right to buy’ policy. The subsequent decline in community cohesion and civic pride, and the contraction in funded sports and leisure facilities, excluded the less well off. The closure of venues such as Basildon’s multi-media Arts Centre reflected a move away from inclusive community arts; the town having spawned internationally renowned 1980s pop acts Depeche Mode, Yazoo and Alison Moyet.

Referring to financial restrictions, Harlow’s architect Frederick Gibberd laments in Changing Places: Nearly New Town (1982), ‘New Town Corporations ought to have been allowed to have done the job properly’. Little wonder then, if some of the first New Towns now suffer from underinvestment, surviving as best they can with no extra resources from government; their culture no longer ‘fitting in’, and the vision that once sustained them a distant memory consigned to the history books. Is the government mantra of housing growth at virtually all costs, all that we have to offer them now? Are New Town success stories confined to those that embraced private enterprise, like Milton Keynes? The original residents of the New Towns are proud of their unique heritage, but will the younger generation be similarly inspired to protect it? It feels to me like a very special responsibility, and one that must be shouldered quickly to enable protection and investment.

Currently there is national government support for a new wave of garden towns and villages designed as a way of delivering housing growth. What will be the vision for these places, if indeed there is one? Will local authorities be left to grasp the nettle, in the face of government pressure to deliver housing, but left to battle it out and ‘co-operate’ between themselves, with no strategic planning or extra resources? In 2018 the Town and Country Planning Association commissioned the Raynsford Review of Planning in England, which comments that ‘Because of deregulation, planning in England is less effective than at any time in the post-war era, with an underfunded and deeply demoralised public planning service and conflicting policy objectives’. The Review argues that a ‘stark comparison can be drawn between the post war consensus over the value of planning’, and the ‘highly polarised arguments which play out over issues such as housing and energy’. It also points to declining political participation, and a loss of trust in ‘professional experts’, as parallel trends in society.

William Mitchell frieze, Stevenage. Credit: Ian Helliwell

Visiting Harlow and Stevenage recently, I reflected that these are still very special and unique places, and all around is the physical manifestation of that desire to create a better life for people, through innovative architecture, design and planning. Recently, the 70th anniversaries of the first wave of New Towns brought together people who have an interest in, and care about these towns. But can we take forward their growth in a way that respects their unique New Town identity, and the original desire to do right by the people? How can we ensure their resilience into the future, addressing climate change and sustainable forms of architecture and planning?

Some hope is found in Basildon’s ‘Breakthrough Basildon Borough’ report and video from 2019; a corporate level independent review commissioned by the Council. It sought to provide strategic guidance on how the Borough can enable sustainable, inclusive growth, recognising Basildon’s unique features and ‘not simply aspire to be like everywhere else’. It calls for new build to ‘reflect the unique architectural heritage of the Borough’; ‘highlight the town centre’s status as a unique example of modernist architecture’; ‘celebrate a legacy of public art’; and ‘create civic spaces… for communities to use’. Heritage conservation and investment can operate successfully hand in hand, and groups such as the Harlow Art Trust and Twentieth Century Society are doing vital work to protect New Towns heritage.

Reflecting on places I have visited, like Margate and Wakefield, the arts-led regeneration there could be similarly applied in some of our New Towns. This would allow today’s generation to appreciate the ‘cultural and spiritual’ experience of their architecture and landscape, just as Lewis Silkin had intended for residents in 1946. Films like the ICO’s New Towns, Our Town compilation bring the value and history of New Towns to life for a younger generation nationally through archive film screenings, while educational projects can also reach out and spread the message. I am heartened that there is an All-Party Parliamentary Group currently looking at the future of our New Towns, and I sincerely hope that special recognition of their status will be achieved, at a time when these 70 year old national gems are increasingly under threat.

New Towns, Our Town is currently available for UK bookings on subsidised terms.

All images credited to Ian Helliwell (@ianhelliwell).  

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