New towns at 70: Reflections on the New Towns Act, 1946

This year is the 70th anniversary of the New Towns Act 1946. The Guardian recently published a well-researched piece about Stevenage and, as someone who grew up in Milton Keynes, it was refreshing to read some quotes from Stevenage residents about their pride in their new town heritage.

To quote the Town & Country Planning Association, “there is no doubt that new towns are often the butt of jokes … by people who have never visited a new town, let alone lived and worked in one.” This highlights the ‘don’t knock it before you’ve tried it’ factor. Many people find the idea of living in a new town abhorrent, but soon after moving to one begin to appreciate the jobs, increased space and decreased congestion. Indeed, Milton Keynes is now one of the most popular places for first time buyers in the country. Admittedly, this is largely a result of the ‘ripple effect’ out of London (whereby increasing prices in central London push people further from the capital in the search of affordable housing), but perhaps also has something to do with millennials not having their parents’ snobbery towards ‘London overflows’.

I’ve always found the ‘concrete jungle’ accusation levelled at new towns particularly baffling. With over 6,335 acres of public open space, no-one in Milton Keynes is more than half a mile from a park and most roads are lined with green verges & trees, even in the centre, which is hardly something that can be said for most towns and cities!

It’s certainly true that not all new towns created under the 1946 Act were successful as Milton Keynes, which, like places such as Stevenage and Harlow, was gifted with an almost perfect location in terms of connectivity to wider employment centres. In particular, many of the new towns are now deemed in need of regeneration, for example Bracknell has recently demolished the entirety of its original retail centre.

Irrespective of the various merits of new towns, it is extremely unlikely we will see them as a form of housing delivery again anytime soon, at least not on the same scale, thanks to changes in both wider politics and planning policy.

Politically, localism and fiscally conservative policies mean that the initiatives required to create new towns, namely vast amounts of compulsory land purchase and government finance through 50 year+ loans, are now extremely unlikely. Without this impetus from the state any new town project would progress much slower, if at all (Ebbsfleet anyone?)

But perhaps even more damning to the new town concept has been the emergence of ‘sustainability’ in planning theory since the post-war period, which favours higher density settlements focused on public transport – the antithesis of the new towns. Although, the emergence of non-polluting cars is perhaps something that can help the new towns counter the ‘lack of sustainability’ argument levelled against them.

Settlements that resulted from the New Towns Act 1946, were not perfect, but they remain functioning towns whose populations, unlike ‘garden cities’, are spread across socio-economic demographics. The first new town, Stevenage, was followed by 31 more which are now home to a combined population of nearly 3 million. Say what you will about new towns, but they were a vital part of solving the post-war housing crisis, which is perhaps something we would do well to bear in mind today.