It can be argued that the UK New Town programme is one of the most successful urban policies of post-war Britain. Many aspects of the programme are recognised by students and practitioners of planning and urban studies as models of best practice.
The New Town programme reflected a sprit of social reconstruction after the Second World War and grew from the need to provide the population with both houses and jobs. Housing was an area in which the post-war Labour government felt that it could achieve social unity.
The aspirations of the initiative, with the emphasis on green and open quality and their successful balance between living and working, were inspired by the garden city movement launched by Ebenezer Howard and Sir Patrick Geddes. Howard’s book Garden Cities of Tomorrow was a source of inspiration to planners, legislators and politicians alike.
In October 1945 Lord Reith was appointed chairman of a New Towns Committee that concluded that the building of New Towns was best delivered by development corporations, financed by the Exchequer.
The New Towns Act 1946 provided the government with the power to acquire land within defined, designated areas and to build New Towns.
These New Towns were not intended to be suburbs or industrial estates but rather self-contained communities combining the convenience of town life with the advantages of the country. They would have their own local shops and amenities and art was regarded as a vital aid to ensuring that all classes would benefit equally.
The Conservative government, which took over in 1951, maintained Labour’s ambitions. However the spiralling costs of the programme resulted in stringent limitations in building costs that severely affected the quality of provision.
Of the 11 New Towns designated in Britain between 1946 and 1955, eight were London overspill or satellite towns. But a number were built for other reasons. Aycliffe (1947) and Corby (1950) were designed to provide better quality housing for existing employment areas and Peterlee (1948) was intended to provide an urban centre and alternative employment options for a mining area.
By the late 1950s some of the earliest New Towns were coming to the end of their main development phase. They were disparaged for their rushed construction, their tendency to feature car-oriented layouts, and for the fact that the new communities, having no collective history, lacked social cohesion.
While many of these issues were addressed in the later New Towns (the third generation towns in particular had substantial resources invested in developing a social infrastructure), New Towns have intermittently continued to receive poor press.
The 1946 New Towns Act envisaged that as the towns grew the development corporation would eventually transfer any remaining assets to local authorities. In the end the government’s solution was to create the Commission for the New Towns, which from 1961 was responsible for managing and disposing of the land and property assets of the defunct English development corporations.
In May 1999 the Commission for the New Towns merged with the corporate functions of the Urban Regeneration Agency to create English Partnerships, the government’s national regeneration agency. In December 2008 English Partnerships became part of the Homes and Communities Agency.
Development corporations used art as part of the structural design of the towns they were commissioned to build. What is striking about Peterlee is that very early in its development there was a very serious commitment to the role that art could play.