Even at a time of unprecedented uncertainty we can be confident there will always be a need for well-designed, climate resilient and affordable homes. As all but ‘non-essential’ construction grinds to a halt, government is itching to get ‘back to normal’ and reboot the economy. But ‘normal’ included a broken housing delivery model which was largely resulting in poor outcomes for people and the environment. Instead, we should take this opportunity to embed a fresh approach to housing the nation in well-designed and affordable homes in healthy communities.
The post-war new towns programme had the ambition to do just that in similarly challenging times. Its design ethos was not simply to provide homes and jobs, but to create socially balanced communities that integrated employment, homes and social life to provide opportunities for all. Government encouraged the development corporations to be no less than “daring and courageous in their efforts to discover the best way of living”.
Today the UK’s 32 new towns provide homes for over 2.8 million people, and include some of the country’s fastest-growing and also some of its most deprived communities. Beyond the lazy references to concrete cows and roundabouts, the new towns programme provides a wealth of essential learning on the design, delivery, management and renewal of both new and existing places.
Top: ‘Fiction, Non-fiction and Reference’, a 1988 mural in Milton Keynes public library by Boyd & Evans, commissioned by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation (ph: MK Civic Collection).
Above: Skelmersdale was the forerunner of the ‘Mark Two’ new towns and the first in the North West. It received its new town designation in 1961, and its development corporation was wound up in 1985 (ph: West Lancashire Borough Council).
The development corporations left outstanding legacies in the new towns, including comprehensive landscape and green space networks, good-quality social housing, and an emphasis on public art and community development. The corporations were able to attract the best young design talent from across the world to experiment with municipal design at an unprecedented scale. Their delivery model enabled the resources, skills and powers to deliver at speed, using a financial model which meant that the programme would ultimately pay for itself.
But while their delivery was impressive, their fall from grace was equally spectacular. Government abandoned the programme prematurely in the 1980s, stripping the new towns of their assets, and with them the resources to maintain the infrastructure that was so integral to their design. This failure to require the long-term stewardship of assets – a concept outlined decades before by the Garden City movement – was to prove the programme’s greatest failure. Milton Keynes and Peterborough, where assets were put into trusts to look after parks and community facilities, provide a glimpse of what might have been.
The new towns’ physical design, where the Garden City movement and Modernism collided, is only just being recognised as an important modern heritage asset which requires protection”
The new towns were not about a fixed approach to design or a single aesthetic, but were of their time. Their physical design, where the Garden City movement and Modernism collided, is only just being recognised as an important modern heritage asset which requires protection, and could be a catalyst for their renewal. Built at speed and often with cheap materials, many estates and new town infrastructures are ageing simultaneously. This is particularly challenging where experimental housing design was combined with unfamiliar construction techniques, often resulting in style over lived experience for their residents. Monolithic town centres in private ownership, and vulnerability to the ‘Right to Buy’ present additional challenges. However, new towns are not historical curiosities but evolving places. Their infrastructure offers potential for innovative growth and renewal which could be at the cutting edge of, for example, how we reinvent civic space or transform how we grow local food or create climate resilient cities.
New communities remain an important part of a portfolio of solutions for addressing housing needs. But failing to learn past lessons – from the need for high-quality design, meaningful public participation and long-term stewardship, to providing the right resources and skills to deliver – risks creating soulless housing estates in unsustainable locations. Let’s not let ‘normal’ life resume, but instead recapture the new town ambition to deliver healthy and creative places for everyone.
‘New Towns: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth’, by Katy Lock and Hugh Ellis, was published in March 2020 by RIBA Publishing (192pp, £40).