Philip Hammond's budget announcement of five new developments will be rightfully critiqued. But the new towns of the 1940s are worth revisiting—however unglamorous they may seemby Nick Hilton / November 23, 2017 / Leave a comment
There’s a statue in Harlow by Keith Godwin, called ‘The Philosopher’. Commissioned in 1960 to celebrate Harlow’s new technical college, Godwin’s philosopher is built from fiberglass but has a crumbling, classical grandeur in the way he looks over his shoulder, like Orpheus, tempted by the sight of vocational education. Except the technical college is gone now, and the philosopher stares at more non-descript mixed material housing in a manner that Nikolaus Pevsner called forlorn, but which looks rather more like confusion.
Harlow is celebrating 70 years since the New Towns Act built Harlow from a cartographical speck into a town with almost 100,000 residents, but it is not yet finished. It never will be. The philosopher might yet stare at a John Lewis, a football stadium, a Mosque. Harlow was born in a housing crisis and has stood through many decades to see another. The 1946 New Towns Act, was an initiative instigated by the post-war Attlee government, led by Nye Bevan the Minister for Health with responsibility for housing, to address a crisis caused by the unholy combination of baby boomers and the Luftwaffe.
We could learn a lot from Harlow. While it isn’t right to compare the present housing crisis—caused by the movement of different forces—to that of the 1940s, the solution remains the same and it remains simple: build, hard, and decentralize. Philip Hammond’s Autumn Budget has just announced the creation of 5 New Towns in ‘high demand’ areas (a euphemism for the South East, one suspects) and a million homes along the Oxford–Milton Keynes–Cambridge corridor, a parabola of land about 40 miles north of London. It’s an interesting rabbit to emerge from Hammond’s hat, but there is little indication that it is more than a spur-of-the-moment partisan gamble.