Sterile or stirring? Britain’s love-hate relationship with new towns

Paternalistic social engineering or make-Britain-great-again utopianism? A new archive film compilation takes a look at the UKs controversial postwar towns

People sometimes say to me, You must get a terrific kick out of having been responsible for a huge thing like a new town, said Sir Frederick Gibberd in an interview in 1982, 35 years after he created the new town of Harlow. Well, I get a lot of misery out of it, in fact. I go around and think, My god, thats unbelievably bad, and it could have been so good.

If that was what the designer thought, imagine how everyone else who moved to Harlow felt. The interview comes in a short film at the end of New Towns, Our Towns, a new compilation of archive films from the Independent Cinema Office chronicling Britains pioneering postwar new town movement and our ongoing love-hate relationship with it. Paternalistic social engineering or make-Britain-great-again utopianism? Textbook example of the failures of macro modernism, or the type of bold, ambitious government initiative we need more of?

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The project began in earnest with the New Towns Act of 1946, which sought to restore the nations housing stock after the second world war but also, in southern England, check the urban sprawl of London by enticing city-dwellers to modern settlements outside the green belt. In the first phase, that meant places such as Harlow, Basildon, Stevenage, Hemel Hempstead, in later phases, Peterborough and Milton Keynes 22 towns in all.

Sir Frederick Girbberd, responsible for creating the new town of Harlow, Essex, later lamented the impact of cost-cutting on his design. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

The scale puts todays housing targets and timid garden village proposals to shame. Informed by Ebenezer Howards Garden City movement and Corbusian modernism, the new towns were a radical proposition to put before a populace worn down by war and bound to traditional architectural values, but who were also desperate for basic amenities.

Most of the films in New Towns, Our Towns were made under the auspices of public information, but in retrospect are propaganda often aimed at Londoners. Time and again, the messaging hammers home that new towns were places to raise families. Recurring images include children in outdoor playgrounds, men playing rugby on new pitches, brutalist shopping centres, modern sculptures on themes of family, and people doing jarringly traditional activities such as Morris dancingagainst the modern landscape.

Basildons Brutalist town centre in 1969. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

The overriding visual motif, though, is Mother Pushing Pram: youll spot her in virtually every film, cruising alongside the traffic-less streets, parking outside the ever-so-convenient local shops or negotiating muddy building sites of neighbourhoods yet to come. Harlow even earned the nickname Pramtown, owing to its high birth rate. In the 1950s, a fifth of the population was under five years old.

The most overtly persuasive film, and the only fictional narrative in the compilation, is a 1951 short titled A Home of Your Own. It stars Harry Locke (previously seen in the Ealing classic Passport to Pimlico), as a Willesden bricklayer who happens to pass through Hemel Hempstead on a coach trip, and starts to wonder why, with all that space and air, people had to go on living as I did: me, the wife and kids in two rooms in London.

Harlow was so successfully marketed to families that it gained the nickname Pramtown, thanks to its high birth rate. Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy

Of course, he has to persuade the missus back home first. Then they have to apply, using the form sent to every London household. Their dark, cramped Willesden apartment is contrasted with the light, spacious, airy new Hemel Hempstead terrace, with a garden to hang out the washing and a real kitchen for me, as the wife puts it. (The architecture might have been modern but the gender equality had a way to go.) It was like the end of the nightmare, she says. At last we could wake up.

A little over the top, maybe, but following the second world war, much of Londons housing stock was either slum housing or substandard: decrepit, overcrowded, damp, dark, draughty, vermin-infested, with outside toilets, no central heating, little outdoor space and atrocious pollution. It really must have felt like stepping into a new world.

Slum housing in Hoxton, 1946. With much of Londons housing stock in poor condition following the second world war, new towns held out the promise of a better life for many. Photograph: Francis Reiss/Getty Images

Not all new towns are the same, but the criticisms levelled at them generally are. They are still looked down upon, derided for their lack of place, their soullessness. Traditional British towns and cities grew organically around certain functions: a church or cathedral, a port, a university, a market, an industry. Their identities and culture accumulated over centuries. Building Rome in a day meant losing all that. You could drive anywhere in Milton Keynes within 15 minutes, planners claimed, but there was nowhere to go. And if you didnt fancy driving, the car-centric grid plan condemned pedestrians to roaming miles of underpasses in search of civilisation.

New towns might have swept away the grime and overcrowding of London, but they often threw out the good stuff too, the chaos, the proximity, the unpredictability, the eccentricity, the history. Their modernist petri dishes were often too sterile for culture to flourish in. The sentiment is brought home in another documentary, New Town Utopia, a feature-length documentary from 2018 focusing on the new town of Basildon: one resident remarks: You cant possibly be Dylan Thomas walking through Basildon town centre.

Council housing in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, 1954. Photograph: Raymond Kleboe/Getty Images

By the time those babies in the prams grew up into teenagers, the new town disaffection began to set in. Crime rates began to rise, infrastructure began to crumble, and the jobs didnt always materialise as planned, so workers commuted to London. And some of that vaunted modernist housing was, itself, substandard. Young people, especially, felt alienated.

In Changing Places: Nearly New Town, the film revisiting Harlow in the 1980s, the older residents still think of it as a nice place to live but worry that it has become rougher; younger ones complain there is nothing to do and nowhere to go, and that theyd move out if they could. And Gibberd laments how badly things went not because of failures in design but because of the constant cost-cutting. Harlows town hall for example, was supposed to be the dominant building, a symbol of the civic life of the town, says Gibberd, but budget cuts meant they could only build it nine storeys high, instead of the intended 15 at least. The whole thing has been done on a shoestring, he says. In design terms, Gibberd, who continued to live in Harlow until his death in 1984, says he wouldnt change a thing. I think it works.

Depeche Mode in Basildon, Essex in 1980. Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns

We dont have to come down on one side or the other. There is no final verdict on the success of new towns. They are still works in progress, and about 2.7 million people still live in them. From a town-planning point of view, Britain was doing the most exciting thing in the world. No other country in Europe undertook such an ambitious rebuilding scheme, and many an apprentice planner from around the world has made the pilgrimage to Milton Keynes. For all the mockery of its concrete cows, Milton Keynes has consistently been one of the most economically successful cities in the UK. And one of the happiest. Theyve even retrofitted some culture into the city, such as the revamped MK Gallery, which opened this year.

And if you couldnt be Dylan Thomas walking through Basildon town centre, you could still be Depeche Mode who came from the town, and were doubtless shaped by its Ballardian landscapes. Today, fans of the band make pilgrimages to Basildon. Added to which Basildons brutalist town centre now has a certain retro cachet to it. New towns have now acquired what they previously lacked: history, difference, variety, perhaps even romance.

  • This article was edited on 15 May 2019 to correct the number of people currently living in new towns, mistakenly stated as 27 million, rather than 2.7 million

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