In planning to build five new towns, shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds has an opportunity to spark a vital connection to the future from Labour’s past.
The postwar new towns borrowed from an Edwardian environmental tradition but were essentially a Labour invention. The first generation of towns was conceived by the Attlee government and the second by Harold Wilson’s. Realised first on the London periphery, in such places as Stevenage and Basildon, then in a programme embracing Cumbernauld, Cwmbran, Washington and Milton Keynes, this was the physical embodiment of a magnificent left-of-centre idea. It’s that the state (in the form of single-purpose unelected agencies) could buy and develop land for housing on the largest scale and, much more, create communities where only green fields had formerly been.
Once, this was an idea that progressive-minded Tories could share. The new towns of the fifties were delivered by Harold Macmillan; his political step-son Michael Heseltine refashioned elements of the idea in his urban development corporations. But the Tory party in its present-day guise forbids the dynamic and developmental conception of the state that made the new towns possible.
The ‘old’ new towns still offer lessons, and not just for shadow housing ministers – Emma Reynolds’ colleagues in business and transport and communities and local government might also usefully cast an eye over the history. One lesson is about investing to save. The balance sheet for housing development has to be long term; only government has the capacity to think and spend over the many decades it may take before investment in bricks and mortar comes to fruition.
For the new towns the state bought land at agricultural use value (using compulsory purchase where necessary, in the wider public interest), developed housing and industrial estates, sold some land, rented units and over the years it broke even. In a place such as Harlow, public spending and revenue balanced decades ago – as the commission for the new towns attested in studies before it was wound up – and since then it’s public profit.
Yet the new towns were never just a way of alleviating housing shortage even as they added tremendously to the housing stock. At best they were planned with employment and transport in mind; some were created as poles of regional growth. In Crawley and Stevenage and Peterlee employment was assured before trenches were dug.
Of course not all the towns succeeded. Corby was stricken when the steel production collapsed in the 1980s was constructed; towns such as Skelmersdale and Cumbernauld could never be emancipated from the fate of the regional economies. So a lesson has to be: think long and hard about diverse employment, for young and old, women and men before designating a new town. And employment prospects will obviously dictate location.
There’s talk of linking Labour’s proposed new towns to the line of HS2. But that could be a recipe for creating commuter ghettos, hollow places with no life of their own. With new towns comes an exciting prospect of enriched social life – through planning to match classes and age groups, skill sets and even the towns’ diversity.
I register an interest. I was brought up in Corby new town and witnessed at first hand the transformation of its meadows and woods into estates and parks. Corby’s extraordinary hybrid Anglo-Scots identity was founded on a Labour version of the ‘big society’ that antedated by a generation David Cameron’s opportunism. It married state finance, private sector employment and space – space in the sense of providing housing so new, tenants had to wait till the plaster dried till they could move into their new homes, but also a sociological sense of width; for people from different places to come together in a new location to build a way of living together.