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A new future for new towns

Milton Keynes / Shutterstock_501587548

When building new towns we must learn from the lessons from the past, says Katy Lock.

As someone who has spent a lifetime defending my hometown of Milton Keynes, I was excited to attend the March opening of its new gallery. This not only provides a new arts and events space for the city but may even make people think differently about the country’s most successful new town. 

The post-war new towns programme was the UK’s most ambitious large-scale town-building programme. Today, they are home to 2.8 million people.

The development corporations that managed the creation of the new towns left outstanding legacies, including green space networks, good-quality social housing and an emphasis on community development. The towns’ physical design and civic art are now recognised as important modern heritage assets, which could be catalysts for their renewal.

"The post-war new towns programme was the UK’s most ambitious large-scale town-building programme"

But as they were built at speed (and, under the constraints of the day, using cheap materials), whole estates are now in need of renewal. Tired-looking buildings affect contemporary perceptions of what were once ambitious schemes.

The government-dictated ‘fire sale’ of assets has also left the new towns – with the exception of The Parks Trust and Community Foundation in Milton Keynes and Nene Park Trust in Peterborough – with no means to look after the facilities provided by the development corporations. Tight administrative boundaries resulting from the way the corporations were wound up are also affecting the way some new towns are able to plan for growth.

The TCPA, which recently held a conference on ‘A New Future for New Towns’, will soon be publishing a report on new town renewal. Our research into the new town legacy highlights key lessons for a fresh new towns programme:

  • Government must play a leading role in identifying need and locations, including a national spatial plan and support for local authorities to identify locations.
  • A dedicated consent regime (New Towns Act) and modernised new town development corporations, which commit to garden city principles including long-term stewardship.
  • New towns should be places of innovation in design and sustainability, but not experimentation at the expense of residents.
  • New Towns can pay for themselves – alongside the capturing and sharing of land values, the £4.75 billion Treasury loan to the new towns was repaid by 1999.

The new towns are unfinished business, and it is our responsibility to celebrate them and encourage all parties to finish the job. But we must also capture the ambition and learn the lessons of the past when delivering new places today. 

Katy Lock MRTPI is projects and policy manager (garden cities and new towns) for the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA)

Photo | Shutterstock


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