New towns movement

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The new town movement refers to towns that were built in the United Kingdom after World War II and that have been purposefully planned, developed and built as a remedy to overcrowding and congestion in some instances, and to scattered ad hoc settlements in others.[1] The main reason for it was to decongest larger industrialised cities, rehousing people in freshly built, new and fully planned towns that were completely self-sufficient and provided for the community.

Background and context: ‘The Urban Disease’[edit]

In 1918, writing at a time when nineteenth century sanitary advances had revealed how badly off people in urban environments were and, owing to pioneers such as Patrick Geddes, the relationship between social issues and town planning was slowly being realised, Frederick Osborn refers to urban problems collectively as the ‘urban disease’ [2] The urban disease, a by-product of the industrial revolution, was brought on by a vicious cycle whereby industry chose to set up near population bases to ensure labour demands could be met which in turn attracted rural migrants seeking work to move into the city prompting further industry and so on. This resulted in greater pollution in the city, higher populations, and denser living conditions. Moreover, rural areas declining rapidly due to loss of population were left to decay.

Furthermore, there were no powers in place to stop prosperous families moving to open spaces or from industry growing in the centres. Fringe growth was vigorous and existing centres were left to deteriorate. Accordingly, those who moved to new fringe suburbs to escape the congestion were in fact “bolstering the very process that caused them to move away.” [3]

Aspirations for Change[edit]

Although aspirations of dispersing great cities are as old as the industrial revolution itself, it was not until 1817 that the first model communities were proposed by social reformer Robert Owen to address overcrowded towns. Inspired by John Bellers’s 1695 proposal for a College of Industry, a colony for the poor enabling disadvantaged people to work and their children to be educated, Owen proposed small, self-contained communities of about twelve hundred people reliant on agriculture but with some other industry. However, his plans “foundered under the heavy weight of revolutionary ideas” [4]

Further model community ideas continued to arise but were each dismissed owing to the perception that they were unconvincing as business ventures.[2] Enter Ebenezer Howard, creator of the Garden City Movement, who successfully founded Letchworth Garden City (1903) and proved that new towns could be economically viable. This was affirmed by Bernard Shaw, co-founder of the London School of Economics, who referred to his investments in the garden city movement as “entirely satisfactory, both economically and morally.” [2]

Garden Cities and New Towns[edit]

The New Town Movement was derived from the Garden City Movement, founded by Ebenezer Howard in the late 1800s, as an alternative to the overcrowded, polluted, chaotic and miserable industrial cities that had appeared in Britain. Towards the end of World War I a group developed – the ‘New Townsmen’ – whose members were Howard, F.J. Osborn, C.B. Purdom and W.G. Taylor. They began advocating the development of 100 new cities to be built by the government.[5]

F.J. Osborn[edit]

If Howard is the ‘father’ of Garden Cities, then Frederick J. Osborn is certainly his ‘son’ – predecessor and champion of the New Towns. Osborn was born in 1885 and spent the majority of his life arguing the case for New Towns. Like Howard, he had quite a modest education, having never attended a university. But what he lacked in formal education, he made up for with ambition and wise career choices. In his early 30s, after meeting Howard through his job at the Howard Cottage Society, he took to the campaign for Garden Cities, though they were now referred to as New Towns.[6] The initial campaigns for the establishment of New Towns failed. Although housing was built, it was often in the form of a ‘garden suburb’, or located on the edge of the existing cities – the antithesis of the Garden City idea.[7] With an increasing lack of faith in the government to take up the flag for public housing and new towns, Howard suggested to Osborn that he was wasting his time lobbying government, and that he would be ‘as old as Methuselah’ waiting for action.[8]

The Beginnings of Reform[edit]

In 1909 a greater understanding of the ‘urban disease’ saw Britain's first town planning legislation created. Although technically opposed to fringe development, the Housing, Town Planning, &c. Act 1909 did not prevent it. Instead, in light of recent success with the development of Hampstead Garden Suburb, the Act, realising that suburbs were easier to develop than towns, held the ethos that good suburbs were better than bad ones. Although planners of the day wanted new towns they were busy dealing with the demand for suburbs: “it is difficult for a technician to earn a living in an ivory tower” [9] Moreover, new towns required government direction which was beyond the scope of municipal powers alone.

Towards the end of the First World War the Garden City principles were reasserted by the ‘New Townsmen’ (Howard, Osborn, Purdon, and Tayler), who, referring to the success of Letchworth, proposed 100 government-supported new towns to address post-war rebuilding. However, the need for post-war housing resulted in new suburbs being prioritised over towns for the next two decades with some four million high standard houses built in between the wars albeit in the wrong places [2] Conversely, some attempts were made at designing rebuilding efforts as satellite towns such as Manchester's Wythenshawe and Liverpool's Speke and Knowsley which also included provisions for industry. Nonetheless, these were still extensions of existing cities and not true New Towns.[3] Furthermore, three-quarters of all the new housing was built privately meaning a default bottom-line approach was adopted into the inter-war development efforts.

During the inter-war years Government committees studied the problem of urban concentration with the Committee on Unhealthy Areas, chaired by Neville Chamberlain (1919-1921), recommending the restriction of further industry in London and the relocation of some of the city's existing industry to garden cities. Although nothing came of these studies they became the origin of Chamberlain's urban decentralisation interests which led to his setting up of the Barlow Commission once Prime Minister. Further important advances included a 1935 Departmental Committee recommendation for the building of new towns in line with garden city principles and a 1936 Special Areas Report reiterating the idea that no new industry should be allowed in London which gained public and political interest [3]

The Barlow Royal Commission[edit]

In 1938 Chamberlain, as the new Prime Minister, assigned a Royal Commission chaired by Sir Anderson Barlow into the urban concentration of population and industry. The resulting report raised the problem of large towns as a public issue for the first time and concluded that ‘planned decentralisation’ was favourable. However, owing to the outbreak of war in 1939 the Barlow Report, published in 1940, was initially ignored due to more immediate priorities although it eventually became a turning point for New Towns policy.[10]

The damage brought on by the Second World War provoked significant public interest in what post-war Britain would be like which was encouraged by the Government who facilitated talk about a ‘Better Britain’ to boost morale. Furthermore, the Ministry of Works and Building was commissioned to draft ideas. The Barlow Report was quickly turned to as a best practice document.[3]

In 1942, following the Report's recommendation, the Government chose to create a central planning authority in the form of the Ministry of Works and Planning. More importantly the Government also announced that the Report's decentralisation and relocation of population and industry initiatives would be followed.

Plans and Legislation[edit]

Post-war rebuilding initiatives saw new plans drafted for London which for the first time addressed the issue of decentralisation. Firstly, the County of London Plan 1943 recognised that displacement of population and employment was necessary if the city was to be rebuilt at a desirable density. Moreover, the Greater London Plan of 1944 went further by suggesting that over one million people would need to be displaced into a mixture of satellite suburbs, existing rural towns, and new towns.[3]

In 1945 the New Towns Committee was formed to consider the “establishment, development, organisation, and administration” [11] of new towns. Within eight months the committee had completed a highly comprehensive study into these issues resulting in positive recommendations for the construction of new towns. Accordingly, the New Towns Act 1946 was passed which, coupled with the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, created a revolutionary “machinery for positive town construction”.[12] These innovative Acts resulted in a total of 28 New Towns being constructed in Britain over the following half-century [13]

New Towns in Britain[edit]

It was in 1946 that the hard work of the ‘New Townsmen’ finally paid off with the passing of the New Towns Act 1946. Swayed by the need for post-war reconstruction, more housing, and a call to halt any further expansion of London's girth, authorities saw that there was no alternative to the New Town solution.[14] In total, 27 New Towns were built after 1946. These were: Stevenage, Crawley, Hemel Hempstead, Harlow, Hatfield, Basildon, Bracknell and Milton Keynes outside London; Newton Aycliffe, Peterlee and Washington in the North East; Skelmersdale and Runcorn in the North West; Corby, Telford and Redditch in the Midlands; Cwmbran and Newtown in Wales; and in Scotland, East Kilbride, Glenrothes, Cumbernauld, Livingston and Irvine. Towns that were expanded under the new towns act were Peterborough, Northampton, Warrington, Ipswich and Preston-Leyland-Chorley.[15]

The New Towns Movement around the world[edit]

There were similar problems for New Towns advocates in other areas of the world. In Hong Kong, the new towns were developed as an initiative from the British colonial government. In other areas although they understood the concept and approved in large numbers, planners had trouble convincing their own governments or agencies of the merits of the proposal. In the United States, it was not until the 1960s that New Towns policies were put in place, although after World War II grants had been extended for such things as slum clearance, improved and increased housing, and road construction, and in the 1950s, to ‘comprehensive renewal projects’.[16] In the former USSR, more than 800 New Towns were founded after the 1917 Revolution, but their growth was not constrained by specific limits.[17] For this reason it could be argued that these towns did not meet the criteria for New Towns since planned population and size limitations were an important part of the New Town idea. Other European countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Sweden also had some successes with new towns, especially as part of post-war reconstruction efforts.[18]

Notable new towns in the United States include Reston, VA; Columbia, MD; Jonathan, MN; Peachtree City, GA; the "new town in town" of Riverside Plaza in Minneapolis.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Osborn & Whittick, 1969, p.33
  2. ^ a b c d Osborn, F. 1942. ‘New Towns After the War’. Second Ed. J. M. Dent and Sons ltd, London. First Pub 1918.
  3. ^ a b c d e Osborn, J and Whittick, A. 1977. ‘New Towns: Their Origins, Achievements, and Progress’. Third Ed. Leonard Hill, London. First Pub 1963.
  4. ^ Osborn, F. 1942. ‘New Towns After the War’. Second Ed. J. M. Dent and Sons ltd, London. First Pub 1918. Pp 45.
  5. ^ Hall & Ward, 1998, p. 42
  6. ^ Hall & Ward, 1998, p. 44
  7. ^ Hall & Ward, 1998, p. 45
  8. ^ Hall, 1996, p.108
  9. ^ Osborn, J and Whittick, A. 1977. ‘New Towns: Their Origins, Achievements, and Progress’. Third Ed. Leonard Hill, London. First Pub 1963. pp 40.
  10. ^ Gibberd, F. 1980. ‘Harlow: the story of a new town’. Publications for Companies. Stevenage.
  11. ^ Osborn, J and Whittick, A. 1977. ‘New Towns: Their Origins, Achievements, and Progress’. Third Ed. Leonard Hill, London. First Pub 1963.pp 55
  12. ^ Osborn, J and Whittick, A. 1977. ‘New Towns: Their Origins, Achievements, and Progress’. Third Ed. Leonard Hill, London. First Pub 1963.pp56.
  13. ^ Hall, P and Ward, C. 1998. ‘Sociable Cities: the Legacy of Ebenezer Howard’. John Wiley and Sons, Chichester pp. 41-69.
  14. ^ Hall & Ward, 1998, p.51
  15. ^ Osborn & Whittick, 1969
  16. ^ Osborn & Whittick, 1969, p. 153
  17. ^ Osborn & Whittick, 1969, p. 155
  18. ^ Osborn & Whittick, 1969, p. 156-157