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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 May 2007, 22:06 GMT 23:06 UK
Building the towns of the future
By Gavin Stamp
Business reporter, BBC News

Milton Keynes in the early 1960s
Milton Keynes was a village once

It is unlikely any residents of 10 Downing Street have found time to read Garden Cities of Tomorrow, published in 1902.

Gordon Brown is unlikely to be any different if he becomes Prime Minister.

But his dream of building five so-called "eco-towns", providing up to 100,000 new homes, would undoubtedly have struck a chord with its author Ebenezer Howard.

A journalist and social reformer, Howard's call for new conurbations to be designed for "humanity at large", to recognise the "social side of our nature" and to give full expression to "modern scientific methods" would have met with the Chancellor's approval.

Garden of Eden?

Finished in 1903, Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire was the fruit of Howard's vision for a carefully planned town, limited in size, architecturally refined and in harmony with the rural landscape surrounding it.

The Garden City movement which Howard hoped to launch internationally never caught on, with Letchworth's neighbour Welwyn the sole other example of the concept in the UK.

But a hundred years later, is there anything that Mr Brown and other supporters of carbon-neutral towns can learn from the housing projects of the past?

Letchworth certainly thinks so, describing itself as a "model" for contemporary efforts to develop sustainable and environmentally friendly communities.

We should not suppose that we can construct new communities which are self contained
Professor Paul Cheshire, London School of Economics

"It is quite unique," Terry Gray, from the Letchworth Heritage Foundation - the body which owns and administers much of the town's property and amenities - says of the town.

"It was Howard's idea to bring town and country together. One of Gordon Brown's ideas is to build more council-owned social houses. That is what Howard did 100 years ago."

This town of 35,000 still thinks of itself as a social experiment. But this, many people argue, is where the similarities between the early 20th and 21st Centuries end.

Howard sought to offer a community-oriented refuge from industrial cities - which he described as "ulcers" - providing more stable employment and a better standard of living.

To this day, Letchworth has a distinctly paternalistic ethos, using its considerable property portfolio to support local hospitals and farms.

Squaring the circle

Contemporary priorities are less aspirational, driven as they are by an acute housing crisis and what one expert describes as a "desperate" hunt for new land to build homes.

But while the commercial imperatives are clear, can new towns meet the social need for new housing while also setting a clear environmental lead?

This is far from straightforward.

A park in Letchworth Garden City (Credit: Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation)
Letchworth has an abundance of greenery but a shortage of houses

While Letchworth has strong green credentials - it boasts a 13 mile green walkway between the town and the countryside - its population is hardly any bigger than a century ago and it acknowledges it has resisted attempts to build new houses.

But some experts are hopeful that future developments could square this particular circle.

"We need more variety in housing not less and we need to provide more land for housing," says Professor Paul Cheshire, from the Geography and Environment Department at the London School of Economics.

"These are both a potential plus environmentally if done sensibly."

Different models

Many supporters of "eco-towns" will be looking to existing communities for inspiration such as Poundbury in Dorset - famously patronised by Prince Charles - and Ashton Hayes in Cheshire which is aiming to become the UK's first carbon neutral village.

But others have turned to a more unexpected source for their role models - the often derided New Towns built in the 25 years after the Second World War.

Milton Keynes, Bracknell and other towns divide opinion architecturally and socially but their supporters believe they offer a template for future urban developments.

NEW TOWNS 1946-1970
Bracknell town centre
Basildon, Bracknell, Central Lancashire, Corby, Crawley, Cumbernauld, Cwmbran, East Kilbride, Glenrothes, Harlow, Hemel Hempstead, Irvine, Livingston, Milton Keynes, Northampton, Peterborough, Peterless Redditch, Runcorn, Skelmersdale, Stevenage, Telford, Warrington, Washington, Welwyn & Hatfield

"New towns were marketed in an incredibly positive way. They were very much presented as forward looking and coming out of the gloom," says John Lewis, regional director of regeneration agency English Partnerships.

"If you think climate change is a major threat, you have to be similarly positive about doing something about it and living in an eco-friendly house is a start."

The flexible approach taken in the development of Milton Keynes should serve as an example to "eco-towns", Mr Lewis says, which could take up to 20 years to be completed.

"Milton Keynes is 40 years old and it still has a long way to go," he says.

"But the common requirements and basic needs of people are the same [as they were then]. Providing schools, shops and health centres is still fundamental when you are planning "eco-towns"."

Welcoming people

Some of the assumptions and features of New Towns - uniform housing styles geared to the nuclear family, an emphasis on the car as the main mode of transport and their courting of big business - clearly would have to be updated to make future projects more welcoming.

"You have to give people a real sense of it being a place in which they feel comfortable and happy and want to live in rather than just a project," argues Mr Lewis, adding that community ownership could be vital to attracting people to live in new conurbations.

Largely designed to cater for London's overflowing population, these towns failed to curb the capital's growth and are now seen by many as having worsened the urban sprawl.

Bracknell's main shopping precinct
Developers may need to think 20 years ahead

In a warning to those envisaging pollution free communities, Professor Cheshire says many of the proposed benefits of previous housing projects never actually materialised.

"The garden city movement and new towns established ideas rather than new ways of living," he says.

"The garden cities were economic failures. The new towns were OK but other countries permitted continuous expansion of urban development quite successfully.

"We should not suppose that we can construct new communities which are self contained in labour market terms. People and employers choose locations for themselves."

Alternative approach

Varied public transport would clearly be key to the success of any new developments as would a more sympathetic approach to land use and an energy efficient building process.

But some still believe it is simply the wrong approach to start building new towns.

"The idea is probably very good" says Professor Anne Power, from the Social Policy Department at the London School of Economics.

"But the execution could be as problematic as it was with some of the new towns."

Busy roundabout in Bracknell
Critics say New Towns only served to increase congestion

This policy increased congestion and exacerbated social polarisation, she argues.

In her view, "greening" existing conurbations would be more cost-effective and progressive.

She wants London suburbs with land capacity such as Croydon and Barking and towns such as Luton, Peterborough and Ipswich to become environmental standard bearers.

"A lot of the new towns have not done very well. They did not get the social infrastructure, the transport infrastructure, the social mix or the mix of work.

"They were also very expensive to deliver."

Brown outlines 'eco towns' plan
13 May 07 |  UK Politics

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