Old problems, old solutions? Why New Towns are back in the spotlight

New housing development, Somerset. Image: Stevekelretsu (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Theresa May, speaking in November 2017 said it was her ‘personal mission’ to solve England’s housing crisis, by ensuring that more homes get built, more quickly. The renaming of the Department for Communities and Local Government to become the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has followed, reflecting a “renewed focus to deliver more homes”. But the UK’s housing crisis is likely to remain a challenge where rhetoric is far easier than delivering actual change.

Housing policy priorities

Last autumn’s Budget included measures on stamp duty for first-time buyers, over £15 billion of additional financial support for housebuilding over the next five years, and planning reforms to ensure more land is available for housing. The aim is that “by the mid-2020s there should be an average of 300,000 homes being built every year” – the biggest annual increase in housing supply since the 1970s.

Industry commentators were lukewarm in their assessment of the announcements, however. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) summed up the measures as “too small to make a real dent in the challenge we face”. Meanwhile the Chartered Institute of Housing said that “it’s crucial the homes built are homes that people can afford” and called for more to be done to support the social housing sector. The Home Builders Federation said that “further policy interventions will be required over the coming years” if the “ambitious” target of 300,000 new homes is to be achieved, and they highlighted SME builders, retirement providers and the private rented /social sector as key.

The potential of New Towns

It is within this context that, in January 2018, a new All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) was officially launched which aims to highlight the growth opportunities, as well as the challenges, in Britain’s post-war new towns. The APPG is a cross-party group, supported by the Town and Country Planning Association.

Speaking at the launch event, Sajid Javid (Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government) highlighted that “it’s this issue of place, how to build not just more homes, but strong communities, that goes to the heart of the challenge we face as a country.”

The initial objectives of the APPG are to:

  • Change attitudes to New Towns and gain increased recognition for them.
  • Make the case for investment in the regeneration and renewal of New Town infrastructure and other issues that specifically apply to New Towns.
  • Positively help shape future government policy.

It is expected that the new APPG will consider the successes and failures of existing new towns in order to learn from past mistakes and to help shape future government policy.

Back to the future

In light of the renewed government interest in the New Towns model and New Town Development Corporations, it is worth exploring how the original New Towns were planned and delivered, and the personal experiences and reflections of those involved.

And that’s precisely what we do in our publication “Planning the New Towns – In Their Own Words” which makes publicly available, five interviews carried out in the 1980s and 1990s with those directly involved. Drawing on original archive interview material, the report offers an intriguing insight into the challenges they faced in creating communities from scratch. It also represents a historical narrative of the radical spirit that inspired those who built the New Towns.

The first-hand accounts focus on five major figures involved in creating the UK’s New Towns: Lord Campbell of Eskan; Walter Bor, CBE; Professor Derek Walker; Sir George Grenfell-Baines; and Sir David Gosling. As well as being the driving force behind specific New Town schemes, many of these individuals became major figures in the development of late 20th century architecture and town planning in the UK.

As they reflect on their experience we can sense pride, as well as a touch of bemusement at the scale of the programme that they were part of delivering. There are also mixed emotions in terms of the legacy they created and the long-term prospects for the New Towns.

  • Lord Campbell of Eskan –“I was really astonished how fortunate we were that we weren’t lynched in the streets with the appalling upheaval that it meant.”
  • Walter Bor, CBE – “Cities must absorb change, live with it, rather than prohibit it.”
  • Professor Derek Walker – “I am optimistic that mediocrity is not an inherent British trait.”
  • Sir George Grenfell-Baines –“One of the aspects which makes the British New Town Movement unique is the public money that was actually put into it.”
  • Sir David Gosling –“The corporate spirit of the team was legendary and it was probably its interdisciplinary structure which assisted in its radical thinking.”

The 33 New Towns planned since 1946 represent the most sustained programme of new town development undertaken anywhere in the world. Today, they are home to over three million people. As the UK continues to struggle with balancing housing supply and demand against environmental, infrastructure and market concerns, it is important to recognise the vision and skills which the planning profession can bring to place-making.


The report “Planning the New Towns – In Their Own Words” draws on interview material collected for the New Towns Record. This archive resource brought together primary and secondary research materials on the UK New Towns programme. Created in the early-1990s, it included in-depth interviews with over 80 key practitioners and academics.

Thirty-two New Towns were designated in the United Kingdom between 1946 and 1970 (plus the later abandoned Stonehouse). Of these 32 New Towns, 21 were in England, two in Wales, five in Scotland and four in Northern Ireland.

Why not read our other recent articles on planning?

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