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News Analysis: What can we learn from new towns?

Words: Laura Edgar
Warrington town centre
Creating new towns is going to be a complex task and much will need to be considered during their planning. What can be learned from the 20th century new towns and what does their future hold?

Facing a post-Second World War housing shortage, the then-government initiated a programme of ‘New Towns’, learning from the earlier garden city movement. New homes, jobs and communities were created as a result of 32 new towns across the UK.

Since the 1946 New Towns Act introduced the New Towns programme, the UK still faces a housing crisis, affordable or otherwise.

At the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) ‘New town – past, present and future’ conference in September, Professor Sir Malcolm Grant, NHS England chair, highlighted that planners also need to consider a series of health challenges, including the rise of diabetes, an ageing population and a lack of physical activity.

New Towns and Garden Cities: Lessons for Delivering a New Generation of Garden Cities by the TCPA, launched at the conference, lays out eight lessons learned from the past.

Speaking on the lessons at the conference, Katy Lock, garden cities and new towns advocate at the TCPA, said there needs to be a delivery team – “a new garden city development corporation”.

Lock said the corporation would work alongside local people and offers a commitment to long-term stewardship – qualities missing from the post-war new towns programme.

Others lessons the TCPA advises the government to take on board include:

  • The need to find the right sites;

  • Creating a dedicated planning consent mechanism to speed up delivery;

  • Setting up long-term land value capture models so the developments

  • Can pay for themselves; and

  • Updating new towns legislation to put in place the delivery mechanisms.

“If you are going to deliver new town developments, development corporations are a good way to do it” John Gardner

Several representatives spoke at the conference, listing the successes and the weaknesses the new towns have had, and future plans for growth.

Welwyn Garden City – founded in 1920 and designated as a new town in 1948 – is facing both “national and bespoke problems”, said Colin Haigh head of planning at Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council.

He said that in addition to housing challenges, ageing infrastructure and the loss of employment land, the borough suffers from the lack of a night-time economy and development viability is raised by every developer.

“How can we get around this?” asked Haigh. “Should we accept the realities or or stick to those garden city origins?”

John Gardner, deputy leader of Stevenage Borough Council, explained the complexities of achieving a balanced community in a new town. “How are we going to make residential properties in the town centre viable? Are we going to say to the existing residents you won’t be able to afford to live in your own town centre? Th at’s not what we wish to do.

“If you are going to deliver new town developments, development corporations are a good way to do it,” said Gardner.

Andy Farrall, executive director for economic regeneration, growth, environment at Warrington Borough Council, said whoever located Warrington as a new town did a “great job”.

He said the reason the new town does so well (it ranked as the best in growth in the UK in 2014) is because it is between the conurbations of Liverpool and Manchester.

“It has incredible connectivity and in the future it will have better. HS2 and HS3 cross there. It still imports people and jobs. Businesses cluster in Warrington. It is built for business.”

But, Farrall conceded, there wasn’t any consultation for the new town. A health gap has formed between the new town (formed in 1974) and old town; it was built for the car and the “sustainability of the place is questionable”.

Likewise, Anna Rose, director for planning and transport at Milton Keynes Council, said that despite the town having integrated cycle lanes, few people use them. The council’s ambition is to have people cycling as they do in Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

Additionally, Milton Keynes has a changing demographic – the town has a lot of under-16s living there and an ageing population.

Tim Gibbs, divisional manager, policy and development services at Halton Borough Council, said Runcorn faces a changing structure of local economics – from the chemical and manufacturing industries to science and logistics. Runcorn also needs to address environmental problems and ageing infrastructure.

Going forward

Many new towns are addressing problems that are arising simultaneously because they were installed at the same time.


The speakers listed several lessons for new towns in the future, including:

•    Finish what is started - don’t stop half way through;
•    Be flexible and adaptable, but stick to the vision;
•    Choose the right location to begin with – consider transport infrastructure;
•    Be creative and experiment – a place must be able to evolve;
•    Engage with people because the outcome will be improved;
•    Integrate old and new;
•    Have the right people with the right skills to deliver what you need to deliver; and
•    Know your future residents – where are they coming from?

In Stevenage, the council is working on regenerating the town centre, including enlarging it and building 2,000 homes. Gardner said one of the keys to the regeneration is getting people to live in the town centre, to drive up the economy.

“It has to be an interesting place. People have to have things to do in the centre to bring people into it. We can’t stand still. Retail is not going to be the same in 20 years’ time and it is not the same as 20 years ago. Th ere have to be museums, churches, and places to eat. The way to have that is to get people living in the centre.”

Farrell said it is about finishing the new town, installing new infrastructure and taking Warrington from a new town to a new city – “that’s in scale and size, activity and place, not designated”.

He added that Warrington’s recent devolution bid is about retaining business rates, building 26,000 homes and creating 55,000 new jobs.

Milton Keynes Council is working towards a plan for the next 50 years, together with its residents.

“If you don’t all work together to develop it, it won’t work. That’s a challenge for new towns,” said Rose.