Imagining New New Towns

Post-War New Towns were shaped by the contradictions in social democracy and then the destructive effects of neoliberalism, but New New Towns should be part of imagining new possibilities.

In its 2018 Housing Green Paper, Labour proposed the introduction of new “legislation to start work on the next generation of new towns and garden cities.” Little elaboration of this idea, however, has been made since. Whilst the 2019 general election manifesto made important commitments to end homelessness, embark on a large scale council house-building programme and improve the rights of private renters, discussion of New Towns and Garden Cities was conspicuous in its absence. The designation of new New Towns would confront the party with fundamental questions about what a radically transformed, socialist society might look like in practice. Critical, self-reflexive engagement with the history of post-war New Towns has the potential to open up exciting spaces of possibility for a future housing policy. Although right-wing accounts typically construct post-war New Towns as evidence of the excesses of ‘socialism’ - a failed, statist ‘utopianism’ - Labour’s post-war New Towns were not, in fact, socialist enough. Whilst the Labour Party should vociferously defend the radical, material transformation of working-class lives brought about by its post-war predecessor, critical reflection on mid-century social democracy’s limitations has the capacity to catalyse the articulation of a truly radical policy programme.

The New Town Narrative

In 1946 the British government passed the New Towns Act.1 This facilitated the creation of brand-new settlements to address housing shortages in urban areas, which had been exacerbated by wartime bombing. Between 1946 and 1970, thirty-two New Towns were designated across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. New Towns not only accelerated the rate at which working-class people were re-housed in the post-war years (600,000 Londoners had been re-housed in London-ring New Towns by 1976), but offered an (albeit flawed) vision of a ‘balanced community’, comprised of different social classes living alongside each other in majority socially rented housing. Funded by the treasury and operating independently of existing local authorities, Development Corporations were given ultimate authority over planning within designated New Town areas. In 1992, the last of the New Town Development Corporations was wound up, and in the eyes of the government, New Towns ceased to be any different from their un-planned older siblings.

As Lauren Pikó has argued, whilst the NHS and the welfare state have typically been granted protected status as ‘national treasures’, New Towns have been subject to unrelenting criticism as concrete monstrosities produced by a bloated, interventionist, social democratic state. Other critiques emphasise the immediately malign effects of architectural forms; New Towns failed because they were poorly conceived and executed by the aforementioned statist bureaucracy, obsessed with the virtues of modernism. Whilst there were inevitably limitations to the design and execution of New Towns (one only has to walk through Basildon town centre on a windy day to find this out), what is omitted from these narratives is the way in which New Towns have been decimated by years of neoliberalism and austerity since the late 1970s. In order to fulfil their original aim of offering better lives to their working class inhabitants, New Towns did not only need to be built, but subsequently cared for and, crucially, funded by successive governments (both Labour and Conservative). As New Towns got old, they found themselves subjected to the same neoliberal ideological and material transformations as the rest of the country.

As early as the 1950s, the Conservative government had encouraged the building of privately subsidised, owner-occupied homes for the middle-classes in New Towns.2 In 1960s Basildon, the Development Corporation bent itself to the dictates of capital as it sought to attract more desirable, middle-class inhabitants to its corner of South East Essex.3 Residents accused Basildon Development Corporation (BDC) of privileging the interests of large retailers like Marks and Spencers over those of its residents, and the Corporation admitted that they would have to sacrifice certain aspects of their long-term plans to the short-termism of capital.

Reliant on direct funding from the treasury into the early 1990s, and home to a higher percentage of people in social housing than the rest of the country, New Towns were particularly vulnerable to the systematic dismantling of the welfare state carried out by successive Conservative governments from the 1980s. The consequences of this were compounded by the disposal of Development Corporation assets to the highest bidder in the late 1980s and 1990s with New Towns seeing soaring levels of poverty since. A 2016 Essex Joint Strategic Needs Assessment report stated that Basildon has ‘high levels of child poverty’ and has a ‘number of deprived areas with poor health and unemployment’.4 Residents of Basildon often identify the 1980s as a tipping point when the town’s depredation took hold: the introduction of Right to Buy, the dissolution of the Development Corporation and cuts to the budget of local arts and culture provision.5 As a result, to cast the high levels of poverty, alienation and economic deprivation seen in many New Towns in 2019 as an ideological failure of the post-war left ignores the failure (and indeed the deliberate wrecking) of governments, particularly the Thatcher and Major administrations, to maintain the economic bases for the New Town project to flourish. New Towns have ‘failed’ for much the same reason endemic levels of poverty and economic inequality have been rising in this country for the past three decades: the sustained assault on the welfare state and local government budgets carried out by the Conservative Party.

Whilst ex-New Towns like Basildon have been hit hard by decades of cuts, it was the figure of the ‘Essex Man’ - a ‘culturally barren and mildly brutish’ beneficiary of the free market - that came to dominate the cultural imaginary under Thatcherism. The ‘Basildon Man’ was a particular subset of Essex Man who, according to the Thatcherite narrative of the working-class New Town resident, had been held back by the bloated, post-war social democratic state, only to be unshackled with the advent of neoliberalism.6 Though subjected to much cultural denigration and snobbish derision, from a neoliberal perspective the ‘Basildon Men’ – working ‘up the city’ and living in their recently purchased council homes - were to be celebrated, for they neatly slotted into the right’s account of social democracy’s failure to realise the ‘aspirations’ of the working-classes. Whilst it is vital to reflect on the shortcomings of the post-war New Towns project, it is equally necessary to produce a counter-narrative to that implicit in the figure of the ‘Basildon Man’: New Towns faltered through the material degradations of neoliberalism more than they did lofty idealism, and working-class people were not set free from the shackles of ‘socialism’ by Thatcherism, but more tightly bound to an exploitative system of labour relations under capitalism.

The limitations of post-war social democracy

The limitations of post-war New Towns are inextricable from the broader shortcomings of mid-century social democracy in Britain, concerned with ameliorating the worst excesses of the capitalist system, rather than confronting its fundamental logic. The Labour Party would encourage ‘class mixing’ in its New Towns, but offer little substantial critique of the relationship between labour and capital. In actuality, ‘social balance’ meant towns sorting themselves into more and less desirable neighbourhoods based on property ownership, and by proxy, class. The construction workers employed by Development Corporations to build New Towns were often the same working-class people the program was intended to house, a situation which could give rise to exploitative working conditions. Fred Udell, a construction worker who helped to build the first generation New Town of Stevenage, spoke of the exploitation of his colleagues by construction companies aware of employees’ desperation to secure a new home in the town. They had a shed for a canteen, no toilet facilities, and were unable to organise and challenge their poor working conditions, for fear their right to rent one of the new homes they had helped build might be taken away.7 According to ex-Labour councillor Joe Morgan, Sir Richard Bonilack – the owner of one of the brand new factories built in Basildon – was also on the board of the Development Corporation. When workers at his factory went on strike, BDC simply threatened to evict striking tenants for rent arrears.8

In much the same way that post-war nationalisations of industry were to be a top-down affair, working-class people had little say over the designation, design or development of the New Towns they were housed in. Development Corporations could be profoundly paternalistic and un-democratic organisations, coming into conflict with more radical existing local authorities. Basildon Development Corporation, for example, felt the wrath of left-wing Labour councillor Joe Morgan for many years. Morgan made repeated personal appeals to Harold Wilson to hand back control of Basildon to the democratically elected local council, rather from the ‘licensed gangsters’ at the Development Corporation. As historian Jon Lawrence has argued more broadly about the post-war social democratic state, the working-classes were to benefit from improved conditions, but it was the government who would dictate what form those improvements would take.9 In the mid 1960s, Evelyn Sharp, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government’s permanent secretary, claimed that the best thing about New Towns was that ‘they could get on with their job without consulting public opinion.’10 Working-class people could not only work in exploitative, precarious and un-unionised conditions to build the New Towns in which they would live, but were left without a meaningful say in the transformation of their own material conditions.

Crucially, interactions between Development Corporations and residents had a distinct class character. Development Corporation employees were almost always farmed in from outside of the area, had middle and upper class backgrounds, and often had prior careers in the military or colonial service.11 In places like Basildon, existing residents (in this case, the Plotland communities that had been living happily on disused Essex farmland for decades) were left suspended in a state of anxiety for years, knowing that their plots would be compulsorily purchased by the Corporation, but not when. Basildon, it is often said, was ‘built on tears’.

In the minutes of public inquiries held by Basildon Development Corporation, residents repeatedly complained of only being consulted after decisions had been made, and the Corporation was at pains to dissuade them of their ‘misapprehensions’, or simply dismiss their objections as overly emotional (especially if you happened to be a woman). Residents were to be instilled with a sense of ‘culture’ and ‘civic pride’, but on the Corporation’s terms. In mid 1960s Basildon, the Corporation frowned upon the supposedly working-class habit of ‘passively’ watching TV, and instead encouraged the kinds of ‘active’ consumption-orientated leisure activities its middle-class inhabitants preferred, such as shopping for luxury goods, going to the theatre and eating out. Working-class residents were, it seems, expected to re-make themselves in to ‘new citizens’ in the image of middle-class planners.

New Towns were originally designed for the white nuclear family unit, with a breadwinning husband and a stay at home Mum.12 Immigration policies that limited people of colour from accessing New Town settlement programmes meant places like Basildon remained disproportionately whiter than the rest of the country well into the twentieth century.13 In February 1972, the non-white population accounted for only 0.003% of all New Towns residents, compared with 3.5% nationally and 5% in London.14 Basildon Development Corporation barely mentioned race at all in the twenty years of records I sifted through. A crackly tape of a 1968 Race Relations meeting in a Basildon church appears to have captured attendees chanting ‘Enoch Powell was right’, and a 1972 Community Development Report stated that white Basildonians were expressing increased anxiety about Commonwealth Immigrants, but no further elaboration was made.15 The implicit assumption from the Development Corporation that the new town citizen was a white citizen meant at the very least nothing was done to challenge this racism This is perhaps unsurprising, when ‘the creation of New Towns can only be understood as part of a broader set of ideas, people and practices that were formed in relation to empire’.16

Imagining new New Towns

What follows is not a detailed prescription of what new New Towns should look like, or straight-forward solutions to the problems identified above, but instead a tentative attempt to imagine new possibilities. Despite the limitations of post-war New Towns and the social democratic state that produced them, their strength lied in their capacity to imagine a new future for the British working-class. The strength of the British Left over the past few years has manifested in this very same capacity, evidenced by the wealth of new think-tanks that have sprung up around Corbynism, and the passing of a series of radical motions at the 2019 Labour conference. New New Towns, I argue, would offer fertile ground for the flourishing of these exciting, imagined new futures under a future Labour government.

New New Towns would have to form just one aspect of Labour’s broader commitment to rehabilitate social housing as a mass tenure, and re-ignite council house building in this country. Post-war New Towns amounted to only 7.5% of all houses built in Britain since 1951. New Towns would not be enough on their own to tackle the country’s housing crisis, and would have to be combined with measures akin to those put forward by Owen Hatherley in his suggestions for a 21st Century socialist housing policy. The idea of creating ‘balanced’ communities of different classes in post-war New Towns could not work when Development Corporations made progressively more housing available for owner-occupation as the twentieth century wore on, the pace of which was accelerated further after the introduction of the ‘Right to Buy’ at a national level. In its 2018 housing Green Paper, the Labour Party argued that New Towns needed to be celebrated because they ‘helped people into home ownership’, a selective interpretation of their legacy that suggests the party remains ideologically welded to the fetishization of owner-occupation. Section 106 has repeatedly proven itself to be an inadequate mechanism in ensuring ‘affordable’ housing is built by private developers; the building of whole New Towns filled with publicly-funded, built and rented housing would send a clear message to private developers, who for too long have been allowed to view housing as a source of profit, rather than a public good.

New New Towns would also provide the opportunity to enact emerging ideas around community wealth building. What better way to develop strong anchor institutions and create a locally rooted economy, based on new forms of worker ownership, than to design a New Town on these principles from the ground-up? Rather than exploiting the workers that build New Towns, they could instead belong to unionised, local co-operative construction companies. Original New Towns were themselves committed to a kind of proto-community wealth building policy of ‘self-containment’, which encouraged residents to work, rest and play within the boundary of the town. This policy was undermined by the concentration of wealth in London, withdrawal of state investment in New Towns and the de-industrialisation and financialisation of the economy. In existing New Towns like Basildon and Harlow, community-wealth building could be used to help re-build local economies that have been gutted by years of cuts, and start to reverse the impact of these interrelated socio-economic processes. Current ‘regeneration’ plans in Basildon centre around the building of an Empire Cinema and the courting of multi-national corporations that might attract visitors from outside the borough, a depressingly un-inspired vision of the Town’s ‘future’ for residents who have endured years of brutal austerity.

Crucially, working-class people would need to be placed at the centre of any New Town project. Decisions about the designation, design and development of New Towns, rather than being made unilaterally by unelected Development Corporations, should be made by and in the interests of the working-class. Just as criticisms of the top-down nature of post-war nationalisations have engendered discussions about ‘economic democracy’ in the Labour party, the means through which working-class people would shape the creation of New New Towns needs proper consideration. These questions – about ‘democracy’ and the current limits of its representative, liberal bourgeois manifestation – are of vital importance to the Labour Party’s future policy programme more widely.

New New Towns would also create the space for the country’s public transport network to be re-imagined. First generation New Towns like Basildon were often designed with a limited public transport network, and failed to anticipate the ‘boom’ of the personal automobile in the 1960s. When the number of cars on the roads grew, Basildon simply retro-fitted more roundabouts, carparks and driveways, embracing this privatised mode of travel as the new reality. In the 1960s New Town of Skelmersdale, public transport links with near-by Liverpool are so abysmal that taxis are often the preferred mode of transport. Designing a town from scratch using public funding would allow for the creation of a free at the point of use, green, well connected public transport network. Pre-Milton Keynes plans for a monorail city that would connect residents via a free at the point of use monorail system – despite never materialising – demonstrate the capacity for the design of New Towns to generate radical re-imaginings of urban transport and mobility.17 A carefully designed, free public transport system would increase personal mobility, decrease isolation and loneliness amongst the most vulnerable in society, and help to reduce the impact of carbon emissions on the pace of climate change. The impact of this would initially be limited – taking place in a few towns across the country – but could develop a blueprint for what a transformed, nationalised public transport system might look like more generally.

New New Towns could also herald the return of genuinely public space. Compulsory purchase orders, whilst historically used controversially by Development Corporations set on uprooting existing residents, could ensure that land in the centre of towns was not privatised, but remained a public good. Rather than town centres being littered with chain coffee shops and restaurants, community halls and spaces could flourish. One piece of writing I can’t help but keep returning to is this vision of what a public canteen might look like. It’s these kinds of imagined futures – where one doesn’t have to partake in repeated acts of consumption to justify one’s presence – that new New Towns might create the space to enact.

It is by no means certain that new New Towns will ever be built, and with the recent general election result, the possibility of a Labour government in the immediate future has vanished. But to entertain the idea of new New Towns opens up imaginative space; space for the articulation of ideas about how society and the economy can be transformed, whilst engaging in critical dialogue with the flawed history of post-war social democracy.

We will be continuing our Beyond the Manfiesto series, now aiming to develop ideas and policies that could be part of a socialist programme beyond both 2017 and 2019. If you’re interested in pitching, the guidelines are available here.

  1. For a more comprehensive account of the history of British New Towns, see: Anthony Alexander, Britain’s New Towns, (2009). 

  2. B.J. Heraud, ‘Social class and the new towns’, Urban Studies, 5:1, (1968), p.41. 

  3. Essex Records Office, A8225/30, Town Centre Review Part 1, (1966). 

  4. V. Baxter, Local Authority Portrait Series: Basildon,, (May 12th, 2016). 

  5. Christopher Ian Smith, New Town Utopia, (2018). 

  6. Lauren Piko, Milton Keynes in British Culture, (2019). 

  7. Huw Rees and Connie Rees, The History Makers: The Early Days of Stevenage New Town, (1991). 

  8. Joe Morgan, Eastenders Don’t Cry, (1994). 

  9. Jon Lawrence, “Paternalism, Class and the British Path to Modernity”, in eds. Simon Gunn and James Vernon, The Peculiarities of Liberal Modernity in Imperial Britain, (2011). 

  10. Quoted in Richard Crossman, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, Volume I: 1964-1966, (1975), p.127. 

  11. Ruth Craggs and Hannah Neate “Post-colonial careering and urban policy mobility: between Britain and Nigeria, 1945-1990”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Vol 1 , (2017). 

  12. This is perhaps best demonstrated in “Charley in the New Towns”, a promotional film produced about New Towns in 1947.  

  13. Guy Ortolano, “Planning the Urban Future in 1960s Britain”, _The Historical Journal, Vol. 54, No. 2, (2011), p.494. 

  14. Guy Ortolano, Thatcher’s Progress: From Social Democracy to Market Liberalism Through an English Town, (2019), p. 14. 

  15. ERO, SA 20/2/37/1, Basildon Race Relations Meeting, (1968); ERO A7722/14, Community Development Report, (1972). 

  16. Craggs and Neate, “Post-colonial careering and urban policy mobility: between Britain and Nigeria, 1945-1990”. 

  17. Ortolano, “Planning the Urban Future”.