Reinventing the British New Town

Doctorate research about housing supply in England

Completed April 2016 


Across 22 British New Towns

Type: Collaborative Doctorate with The Bartlett School of Planning (UCL) and The Architecture Foundation
Sponsor: Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC )
Status: Completed April 2016
Collaboration: The Architecture Foundation & Bartlett School of Planning

Political ideology and housing supply: rethinking New Towns and the building of new communities in England

Research Abstract

Throughout the twentieth century, England experienced a chronic problem of housing supply that persists to this day. In an attempt to manage it, philanthropists, policymakers and politicians have directed planning policies and legislation to build new planned communities: Howard’s town/country magnet; New Labour’s sustainable communities; and, the recent Coalition government’s initiatives in delivering locally-led garden cities. Problematically, this results in planning being trapped between political ideology and problems of housing supply. To examine this tension, the New Towns programme provides an important example of how goal-driven planning policy was used during the period 1946-1976 to address housing supply. This research focuses on the first wave (mark 1) of New Towns built as ‘balanced communities for working and living’ (Reith, 1944) between 1946-1955 in Southeast England, to decentralise London’s population and industry. Three critical lenses are employed to understand the development of mark 1 objectives: self-containment (Hall 1973, Ward 2004), newness vs. sameness (Clapson 2003) and governance (Aldridge 1979, Reade 1987). This research provides a different appraisal to the New Towns programme and makes a critical contribution to the meta-discourse of building new communities. A principal critique here is that the historiography of New Towns has been predominantly written by experts (academic and otherwise), providing a limited interpretation of the legacy of (living in) New Towns. To empirically rectify this, Sandercock’s (2003) suggestion of a narrative-led approach is employed in investigating two mark 1 case studies: Harlow and Hemel Hempstead. Perspectives of original New Town pioneers as well as planners/officials working in development corporations and local authorities/councils have been collected and analysed for a hitherto undocumented experience of planning, building, managing and living in New Towns. It thus provides not only valuable scholarship on New Towns, but also reinforces their contemporary relevance to the continued pursuit of building new communities in England.

Research methodology

The objective of this research is to understand how throughout history England has relied on planning and its policies of building new communities, to solve the chronic problems of housing provision. To achieve this, an understanding of planning history is needed in order to rethink contemporary policy. Three key critiques affected the research questions and methodology of this thesis. In the first instance, Sandercock’s (2003) preoccupation that planning has no ‘proper field of inquiry’ (ibid.:38) lending to a professionally orientated account of the emergence and ideology of the profession and its outcomes. Secondly, Hayden’s (1995) reflection that urban planners, landscape architects and architects have not yet undertaken creative work in recording the ‘history of struggle’ with the ‘poetics of occupying particular spaces’ (ibid.:13). She turns her reflection to a poignant question asking how this recorded experience would reach scholars and professionals if it had been evaluated. Thirdly, the more recent critique made by Willett (2011) that community understanding of their environment is unequivocal and their knowledge should be integrated to an adaptive strategy in future planning (ibid.:10) taking into account their complexity and non-linear trajectory of experience. Together these critiques underpinned both a personal interest and a professional preoccupation over the lack of local voices and historical evaluation in New Towns planning history and influenced the two main research questions:

(1) Given the ongoing debate around sustainable communities, how can a renewed study of the New Towns Programme help rethink planning’s challenges in building new communities today?
(2) To what extent can we reconceptualise the New Towns discourse by incorporating local perspectives into the legacy of this 1946 policy?

The primary research question called for a mixed methods approach because it required reading and evaluating the origins of planning ideology to understand contemporary policy and contribute knowledge to the continuing housing crisis. While a discourse analysis can lead to an understanding of the policy formulation for housing provision, it provides a limited insight. It reveals the ‘ideological discourses used by actors within organisations to promote specific policy agendas that are commensurate with their interests’ (Marston, cited in Keith Jacobs, 2006: 42), for example, in Parliamentary discussion of ‘the underserving poor’. However, a discourse analysis was not sufficient to capture the complexity of the different policy processes that informed the different themes. Thus, while discourse analysis and historical evaluation can be a useful method for understanding policy documents, it is not necessarily the most revealing when reading historical archival material. Acknowledging the existing limits of New Town literature and its interpretation by experts was another challenge of the preliminary literature review. First-hand material about the New Towns consisted predominantly of documents, statistical surveys and annual reports, which were compiled by the Development Corporations and would offer a traditional quantitative approach to analysis where hard facts and figures inform the subject-matter. By surveying this data, obvious trends and correlations emerged (Denscombe, 2007). For example, that home ownership was almost double in Hemel Hempstead of that in Harlow before the Right-to-Buy policy was introduced. Or, that the Development Corporations became a pawn of government ideology in the discourse regarding rescaling governance. Also, that factory relocation was generally assessed in parallel to housing provision data. While these trends suggested there were significant emergent themes, such quantitative data could not provide deeper, interpretative information around the issues. Keeping this in mind, empirical material was collected from various sources: policy documents; archives, structured one-to-one interviews and informal group discussions, design charrettes, and collaboration with a non-academic organisation.