When I read about Ed Balls’ plan, if Labour are elected, to build a 'wave' of new towns, I wondered whether the current nostalgia for all things 1963 had gone to his head. Or perhaps this was an extreme example of the two Eds’ intention to eradicate every trace of New Labour, and to unlearn the lessons of the wilderness years of the Eighties and early Nineties. Surely new towns were a feature of the unpopular Old Labourism that voters decisively rejected at the end of the Seventies, along with tower blocks, nationalisation and the closed shop?
In case you’re wondering whether I know whereof I speak, I should mention that my first full-time job was in Basildon, another was in Berinsfield (a planned ‘new village’ in the Oxfordshire countryside), I now live a few minutes from Stevenage, and for the past two decades I’ve worked in Milton Keynes, arguably the only new town that (sort of) works. All of these, except perhaps the last, are characterised by bleak and soulless centres, brutalist architecture, and large and isolating housing estates. What they lack are many of the things residents of ‘old’ towns take for granted: the informal bustle of street life, an attractive diversity of architecture in which the ancient jostles with the modern, buildings and spaces hallowed by tradition and collective memory, and the capacity for organic and spontaneous social, economic and cultural initiative. A recent story in our local paper reported that Stevenage is the ‘unhappiest’ town in Hertfordshire. To be sure, many of its social ills (a high unemployment rate, widespread drug and alcohol problems) are shared by a number of ‘old’ towns and cities, but surely they must be exacerbated by the depressing built environment and the legacy of soulless, centralised planning? Perhaps the most telling sentence in the report is the last: 'Being a new town, Stevenage might not have the established community networks to make people feel they belong, leading to alienation.' (This is despite the 'new' town having been there since 1946).
Another thing new towns tend to lack, though it’s difficult to talk about, particularly on the Left, is class diversity. The new towns of the Sixties were, by and large, one-class towns – working-class towns, in fact – unsurprisingly, since they were mostly intended as a means of clearing the decaying slum areas of London and other big cities, and offering their residents a better life in the country air. By contrast, ‘traditional’ towns tend to be marked by a vibrant social mix, from which everyone gains. Like it or not, in most communities it's those with economic, educational or cultural capital - the middle classes, in other words - who keep the schools going, organise cultural events, attract higher-end shops and restaurants, and campaign to preserve the local environment. It’s probably the social diversity of Milton Keynes which accounts for it being one of the more attractive and popular of the new towns - which isn’t to overlook its negative aspects, such as the lack of streets you can actually walk along, its disadvantaged outlying estates, and the dire transport connections for anyone without a car.
The deliberately proletarian character of the Sixties new towns always had vaguely Soviet overtones, as did the council-run cultural centres and centrally-planned landscapes and public art works. Balls & co. might object that their new generation of new towns will learn from these past mistakes, and will go out of their way to attract a social mix, employ decent architects, and ensure good transport facilities. But that doesn’t get away from the basic problem with new towns, whether we’re talking about the windswept decay of Basildon or the consumer paradise of Milton Keynes: and that is that they are planned. Surely the main lesson from the new towns of the Sixties is that you can’t plan community, that it has to grown organically over time, and given the choice, most people would prefer to live in an unplanned traditional town, with its mixture of old and new, than in a centrally-planned new town where the government and local authority have preordained where and how you shall live, shop, and enjoy yourself.
When I posted about this story on Facebook and Twitter earlier today, a few commenters suggested that garden cities such as Welwyn and Letchworth provided examples of 'good' new towns and might offer a better model. However (and again, writing as someone who lives within a few minutes of both of the aforementioned places), I have to agree with Jane Jacobs, who was as hostile to the fantasies of Ebenezer Howard as she was to those of Robert Moses. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs described Howard's aim as 'the creation of self-sufficient small towns, really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life among others with no plans of their own. As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge'. I'm biased, of course, but I much prefer Hitchin, the old, diverse, attractive and constantly surprising town where I'm privileged to live, to either of its rationally-planned near-neighbours, whether the brutalist squares of Stevenage or the orderly avenues of Letchworth.