1960s >> 1963 >> no-708-august-1963

New towns for old

Contrary to common thought the creation of New Towns after the last war was not a new thing. Over the last 200 years many towns have been constructed for non-economic and non-geographic reasons and their development has been planned. Examples of these are Washington and Canberra, and more recently New Delhi. In this category of political capitals with planned development Brasilia is the most recent example.


In Britain, prior to the war, garden cities had been built at Letchworth and Welwyn. Even earlier John Laird had begun Birkenhead as a new town and Stephenson had built a New Town at Ashford.


After World War II a number of countries, including Russia, Poland and Czechoslovakia, constructed new towns to house workers for specific industries.


In the U.K. the aim of the New Town Act of 1946 was to attract industry and population away from areas of congestion. These new towns were to be modelled on the Garden Cities of Letchworth and Welwyn, and were to provide gracious, healthy living conditions.


The basic pattern has been the “neighbourhood” system. This provides for a city centre with satellite neighbourhood centres catering for immediate needs and community recreation. By 1960 there were fifteen such towns in various stages of development.


It was thought that the major problem would be to align housing construction, industrial expansion and essential services. In fact, the first problem to arise was that of school places and accommodation, followed by the lack of facilities for adolescent recreation. These problems were obviously related to the age structure of the new communities. Older people do not easily cut their ties with an area and move, consequently New Towns tend to have populations of young people with dependent families.


Another complaint has been that most New Towns are difficult to distinguish one from the other, in general being monotonously alike in appearance, with the streets too wide and the houses remote. They are thus neither urban or rural, and as most dwellers in new towns came from urban areas with many close neighbours they have found this low-density living plan unneighbourly.


Further, coming from different areas to the New Town the citizens take time to make friends. This, coupled with the fact that their previous neighbourhood is seldom all that far away, enabling them to keep up old friendships, has retarded the growth of community spirit.


It was intended that these communities would cater for all the needs of the community—work, shelter and leisure. New Towns in the London area have numbers of commuters using train and car to take them to town. They have a tendency to be dormitory towns, with people working in London gaining their recreation there before returning late in the evening. The isolation of the wives, lack of recreation for the adolescents, long tiring journeys to and from town, have developed what has become known as New Town Blues.


It is apparent that the planners of New Towns did not see far enough ahead. The Guardian recently reported Mr. Henry Wells, the former chairman of the Hemel Hempstead Development Corporation, as being of the opinion that if they had known the motor-car age was upon them, they would have produced “a very different sort of town.” He said that Hemel Hempstead was “in the light of current thought, an old town.”


Workers in New Towns have no more security than workers elsewhere. The job is not theirs, it is their employers! They have experienced short time, redundancy, unemployment, as workers at Hatfield. Stevenage and Peterlee can testify.


The blame, as always, has been put on the Government. They lacked foresight, they did not institute research into the needs of New Town communities, they withheld capital which would have created diversity, they did not bring about conditions which would have attracted community leaders from the professional strata to live in New Towns. In one sense it is true that the Government can be blamed — for like all reformist governments it claims to have solutions for the various ills of capitalism. But as the Socialist knows, no one can control capitalism in the interests of the working class. The new way of living in New Towns has not been achieved and workers live under the same economic and social pressure of capitalism, as workers elsewhere. The problem of a new way of life is not soluble under capitalism. In this sense the blame is not with the government, but with workers who support Conservative, Labour and all reformist parties.


Capitalism would like workers to be housed efficiently and cheaply. This would raise their productive capacity and improve their physical and mental health. But capital must be invested where the return is greatest, and workers’ wages do not allow them to pay for efficient, gracious housing.


If workers really want “New Towns” and a new “way of living ” the only way is by the establishment of Socialism. Then and only then will they be able to construct dwellings to suit their requirements.


Ken Knight