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?

More people, more houses, more dissatisfaction… Are we ready for higher-density living in the UK?

abstract windows in flats (Unsplash)

By Morwen Johnson

We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us (Winston Churchill)

It’s estimated that we need 240,000 to 245,000 additional homes each year in order to meet housing demand and need in England. Statistics show that we are consistently failing to meet this level of housebuilding but how we change this situation is a matter of debate. The UK Government’s recent Productivity Plan included proposals to make development on brownfield land easier as well as freeing up public sector land assets and supporting higher density housing around commuter transport hubs. Others are recommending more controversial solutions, such as increasing building within the green belt (for example see reports from London First and the Adam Smith Institute).

It seems inevitable that the future requires housing at greater density but, particularly in London, alarm is now being sounded about superdensity and potential hyperdensity developments, which have become the norm in many global cities.

What is high density development?

From a planning point of view, density is intrinsically linked with creating viable communities which have a population to make amenities and infrastructure sustainable and cost-effective. Higher density designs (in urban environments) also increase the amount of street activity and thus, the perceived safety and attractiveness of a place.

Appropriate density is of course relative to context, and guidance such as the London Plan density matrix reflects this. Although there is no hard and fast definition, within urban areas a general density of around 70 to 100 dwellings per hectare (dph) level is common. In terms of new developments in major city centres like London, superdensity has been used to describe densities over 150 dph (or 450-500 habitable rooms). Hyperdensity can mean 350 dph or more.

Higher-density living does not necessarily mean high rise buildings though – careful design can increase neighbourhood density via mixed-tenure mid-rise developments. A group of four London-based architectural practices recently published a report Superdensity which aimed to provide positive guidance on how to ‘combine ambitious densities with popular and familiar urban forms’.

Space as a luxury or a necessity

While this may at first sight appear to be a debate about the planning system, it actually raises more fundamental questions about the aspirations and expectations we have for how we live.

There is a legacy in Britain of thinking that high-density housing means tower blocks in undesirable areas. Much urban regeneration in recent years has focused on replacing high-rise buildings. Lower-rise developments can also be high-density, if well designed, so the issue is actually often about housing quality rather than increased density, and whether the housebuilding industry is delivering the types of housing that people want.

RIBA’s Future Homes Commission highlighted that a focus on number of bedrooms ignores the potential of rooms as functional spaces. Floor space in the UK for new build housing is the smallest in Europe. And research in 2012 suggested that people value natural light, space for storage and flexible spaces which allow for socialisation. There is also a general hierarchy of desirable housing which it is still often assumed that people will move through during their lifecourse, especially as they start families – i.e. starter flat, 2 bed flat, terraced house or maisonette, semi-detached house, detached house with garden – as well as a move from rented property to owner-occupier.

For many people however these aspirations are impossible. Drawing on 2001 Census data, research has shown that although social housing tenants make up only 21% of families with children, they make up 79% of those families living on the fifth floor of a building or above. In London, nearly one third (31%) of all families with children living in social housing were found to reside on the second floor or above.

Smaller dwelling sizes can also affect our health. Many people living in flats or tenements have to dry laundry inside, which has been shown in studies by the Mackintosh Environmental Architecture Research Unit and the University of Manchester to have health risks. Lack of outdoor space for children to play (whether communal or private garden space) also has negative impacts. It seems that many people have to downsize both their living space aspirations and their quality of life.

It’s hip to be dense

The fact that we pay a premium for space, just as people who can afford it can choose to pay more for housing near transport connections or in particular school catchment areas, is nothing new. But as the discussion on high-density housing and the quality of new housing shows, it can be argued that the trends of the housing market are disadvantaging a large proportion of the population, and also younger generations. Access to housing (and increasingly housing space) is becoming a highly political issue.

Public suspicion of high-density housing is being overcome through subtle rebranding – terms such as the ‘compact city’, ‘pocket housing’ and ‘micro-housing’ have a cool edge which try to appeal to young urban-living professionals. And many award-winning high-density schemes also now have a strong focus on communal gardens or space, providing elements that traditionally would be delivered in private space.

Regardless of the marketing (or policy impetus), the truth however is in the living. Do people feel they are compromising in their housing choices or is there a wider shift in aspirations? And more importantly, as space becomes a scarcer commodity, are we just introducing another marker of inequality into the mix?


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