Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Nineteenth Report


  1. The establishment of 22 new towns between 1946 and 1970 was an ambitious programme to provide new homes and jobs following the last World War. It was based on the ideals developed earlier in the century by Ebenezer Howard's garden city movement which sought to create better environments for people away from the smog and cramped conditions in inner urban areas.[1]
  2.  While many New Towns have been economically successful, most now are experiencing major problems. Their design is inappropriate to the 21st Century. Their infrastructure is ageing at the same rate and many have social and economic problems. Many are small local authorities which do not have the capacity to resolve their problems. Their attempts to manage the towns are complicated by the role played by English Partnerships which still has major landholdings and other outstanding interests. Neither this Committee, nor its predecessors has looked at New Towns for some years. The transfer of responsibilities from the Commission for New Towns to English Partnerships in 1999, which is itself now subject to review, provided an appropriate moment to hold the inquiry.
  3. Our terms of reference were to consider:
  4. - the extent to which the original design of the New Towns is leading to concerns about their long term sustainability, in particular the effect of their design on urban management, how car dependence might be reduced and the balance between new development and the regeneration of older parts of the towns;

    - whether social exclusion in the New Towns is being exacerbated by the current Government approach to regeneration and neighbourhood renewal, in particular in relation to small pockets of deprivation;

    - issues relating to the organisations and regulations operating in the New Towns, in particular:

    - the consequences of English Partnerships' control of the land supply and its role in the planning system;

    - the effect of the transfer of assets and liabilities to local authorities; and the role of local authorities, residuary bodies and non-Departmental Public Bodies in promoting sustainable regeneration in the New Towns;

    - the role of the New Towns in their regional economies, in both the industrial/commercial and housing markets and their effect on surrounding conurbations; and

    -whether the Government should change its policy in respect of design, regeneration and social inclusion in the New Towns.

  5. We received written submission from 50 organisations and visited Telford, Corby and Harlow. 16 new town local authorities completed a questionnaire based on the Committee's specific questions. We commend them to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and others as essential evidence for policy-making in the new towns. We took oral evidence from English Partnerships and Tony McNulty MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Housing, Planning and Regeneration at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in July 2002. We are grateful to our advisor Professor Brendan Nevin from Sheffield Hallam University, Telford, Corby and Harlow councils for their hospitality and all who provided written and oral evidence to the Committee.
  6. History

  7.  Proposals to set up a programme of New Towns were made immediately after World War II. They were intended to tackle poor housing conditions and overcrowding in major urban centres. The 1944 Abercrombie Plan for London proposed eight new towns within 50 miles of London for up to 500,000 people who would be moved out of inner London. Similar recommendations were made for other major conurbations including Manchester and Birmingham. The 1945 Atlee Government set up a New Towns Commission, which was chaired by Lord Reith, to work out the practicalities of establishing new towns to decentralise populations from congested urban areas, .
  8. The Reith Commission recommended that:
  9. - the new town developments should have a population of up to 60,000

    - they should be built as far as possible on greenfield sites

    - there should be predominantly single family housing at low density

    - the homes had to be organised in neighbourhoods around a primary school and nursery schools, a pub and shops selling staple foods and

    - there should be a balance of housing and jobs.[2]

  10. The subsequent New Towns Act in 1946 established the New Town Development Corporations, and outlined the model for the management, design and development of New Towns.
  11. - Public Corporations were to be set up, sponsored and financed by the Government through Treasury loans.

    - The New Town Development Corporations were managed by a board appointed by Central Government.

    - They were given planning and compulsory purchase order powers.

  12. The Development Corporations drew up development frameworks for a mix of housing, offices, industrial development, transport infrastructure and open space. They used their compulsory purchase order powers and loans from the Treasury to implement their frameworks. Some have been extensions of existing towns, while others have been new stand-alone centres.
  13. 22 New Towns were developed in three generations.
  14. - The first generation set up in the late 1940s concentrated predominantly on housing development on greenbelt sites; eight were in a ring around London. They included little provision for cars.[3]

    - The second generation in the early 1960s included a wider mix of uses and used more innovative architecture.

    - The third generation towns were larger including Milton Keynes, designated in 1965 and Central Lancashire, the last, which was designated in 1970. Development in the later generations of new towns tended to be designed around car travel.

    Overall about 2m people are housed in the New Towns in about 500,000 new homes.

  15. All the New Town Development Corporations were wound up by 1992. Whilst some of the remaining assets and liabilities were transferred to the local authority, most went to the Commission for New Towns that was established in 1961. In 1999, the Commission was merged with English Partnerships (EP). Later in this report, we consider the management of the disposal process and the future role of EP in the relation to the New Towns.
  16. New Towns - Successes, Variations and Shortcomings

  17. New Towns have many similarities particularly in their design and have similar problems. On the other hand, there are also wide variations particularly in their economic situation.
  18. There have been successes. According to the submission from the New Towns Group of 10 local authorities, "Most of the New Towns are economically dynamic areas, which have levered in significant business investment. They have also fulfilled an important social function, providing housing for many from blighted inner-city areas, generated jobs and provided recreational amenities."
  19. The New Towns are no longer new. They now require huge new investment and redevelopment. Much of the development was carried out within a 30 year period and is now suffering from uniform deterioration. The construction materials for the housing were experimental, non-standard and often poor quality, and in some areas now require wholesale replacement. Additionally, the infrastructure, the roads and sewers are now in need of substantial upgrading.
  20. The masterplans drawn up for the towns proposed low density development with large amounts of open space, and housing was segregated from jobs, shopping and business services. Because of the low densities they are now not considered sustainable. In most, car travel is a necessity. They are also expensive to maintain. Welwyn Hatfield Council said: "the early New Towns were built to the requirements of post war communities and without the needs of future generations in mind."[4]
  21. Socially and economically, there are major variations which are reflected to a great extent in the housing demand in the different areas. Corby, Runcorn, Skelmersdale, Cwmbran and Irvine have concentrations of deprivation, including high levels of unemployment and low housing demand. The towns in the South East have benefited from the major economic growth around London. Warrington and Telford have benefited from good transport links. Even these relatively prosperous areas have concentrations of deprivation and problems in the provision of affordable housing due to high land prices.
  22. The Problems of the New Towns

    Physical needs

  23. Submissions to the Committee highlighted the physical, economic and social problems of the New Towns. In this section we concentrate on the physical needs which were:
  24. - the transport infrastructure

       - town centres

    - housing design and public space


  25. Many of the submissions to the committee pointed to the dispersed nature and low density of development in all the new towns and the segregation of uses. As a result the residents need to travel further than in many traditional towns and cities. Whilst local services have been provided within walking distance in neighbourhoods, access to the town centres relies heavily on car use. Although some of the Development Corporations included public transport provision within their masterplans, the bus services are inadequate in many towns. Milton Keynes Council said the city "was designed for unrestricted car use and the grid road layout and comparatively low gross density of development make public transport difficult to operate commercially with the result that the service is poor, especially at night."[5] The council is now seeking to control car use, introducing car parking charges in the shopping centre and developing more bus-friendly road layouts.
  26. Town Centres

  27. At the centre of all the New Towns, a shopping centre has been developed to meet the needs of the surrounding populations. Many have suffered from poor design and layout. Most are now out-of-date and as a result, residents are choosing to shop in other locations. Corby Council estimates that 73 per cent of disposable income is leaving the town.[6]
  28. Bracknell Forest Council described the town's shopping centre "as an impersonal oblong concrete box.....the town centre, although pedestrianised is separated from the surrounding area by two ring roads giving a fortress effect." The council said it had undertaken some environmental initiatives to tackle the problems but "the problems have to be addressed by plans to completely redevelop the centre."[7] The Council pointed out that 80 per cent of those living within ten minutes drive of Bracknell centre chose to shop elsewhere.[8] Torfaen council said: "Poorly designed and badly lit shopping areas in Cwmbran have led to perceived unsafe or no-go areas, attract anti-social behaviour, provide areas for alcohol and substance misuse, criminal damage and burglary." [9]
  29. Because the town centres are largely retail centres, in the evening there is little leisure activity. Telford's MP David Wright said the town's shopping centre is an "extremely successful out-of-town retail centre built in the middle of the town. At present it does not operate as a town centre as intended in the original new town concept. The centre closes down at 5.30pm and does not provide any night time economy of merit."[10]
  30.  In Milton Keynes and Bracknell proposals are being considered to attract a wider range of uses including housing and entertainment into the town centres. Many of the local authorities are seeking to redevelop the shopping centres but they are hindered because they do not own them. The Development Corporations built the shopping centres but then sold them off to private investors.
  31. Housing

  32. Much of the housing was put up quickly using 'innovative' designs which have not stood the test of time. It now requires demolition or at least major refurbishment. The submission from Corby pointed to the poor architectural design and construction techniques which were unsustainable and expensive to repair.[11] Telford & Wrekin council said that 5,000 homes were built with timber frames; 30 years on "a significant number of dwellings in these estates are past or nearing the end of their useful life.[12] In Runcorn, two estates, Southgate and Castlefields, which included deck access flats built with'innovative industrialised methods' are having to be redeveloped because of their physical condition which had led to low demand in the area.[13] High alumina cement was also used widely which is now requiring major repairs. In Harlow, the Gibson Court flats were built in 1964/65 and won a design award in 1969. Their design, with walkways and garages, is now considered poor, and the council has demolished one side.[14]
  33. During our visit to Telford we heard how the Development Corporation had pursued a "fire sale" policy of housing disposals before being wound up, when the balance of housing was transferred to the local authority. The local authority (now a housing association) stock has been reduced by right-to-buy, leading to a fragmented pattern of ownership across the town's housing estates. This fragmented ownership makes housing regeneration schemes more difficult. In areas where housing markets are weak, problems have been compounded by large numbers of private sector landlords.
  34. In Telford we heard that in one area, cheaply bought housing is being rented by private landlords at 80 per week to housing benefit claimants, compared to housing association rents of 45-50 per week. We were told that the Rent Service considered this higher rent to be acceptable because it was consistent with average rents across Telford as a whole. This echoes problems that we heard during our Empty Homes inquiry.[15] The Rent Service, an Executive Agency of the DTLR, established in 1999, was charged with ensuring that landlords could no longer extract higher rent payments from benefit claimants than other tenants.[16] It was not clear in the response from the Housing, Planning and Regeneration Minister, Tony McNulty MP, to our question, whether the Government intends to deal with the problem through the licensing of private landlords, reforms to the Housing Benefit system or the Rent Service, if at all. [17]
  35. Subsequently, the Minister provided additional information about the Government's plans for the selective licensing of private landlords: the proposals aim to tackle problems which are particularly prevalent in areas of low housing demand, but, he noted, there may be exceptional circumstances where the powers could be used to tackle poor management practices and anti-social behaviour in other areas. His letter added: "In these circumstances any local authority, including a New Town authority, will be able to seek the Secretary of State's consent to implement a scheme subject to the need to demonstrate that there is a significant problem caused by those operating in the private rented sector in such areas and that licensing would address the problem"[18] The selective licensing of private landlords is urgently required. We recommend that the licensing of private landlords, with an explicit link to housing benefit, be included in the new Local Government Bill.
  36. Neighbourhood design, management and security

  37. The Radburn housing layout which aims to separate cars from housing was used extensively in New Towns. As a result the houses are accessible to the front only by footpaths. This has created areas with poor surveillance, particularly over car parking at the rear, which have become the focus of crime. In Skelmersdale, tenants are calling for their Radburn style housing to be remodelled so that defensible space is created with parking close to their homes and a reduction in general use areas which give rise to anti-social behaviour.[19]
  38. Green spaces, which are a key feature of many of the New Towns have, caused concerns about safety. Footpaths have been provided linking the widely dispersed housing estates to the centres, which residents are frightened to use. In Bracknell "isolated, dark and secluded footways between and behind properties have been problematic."[20] The wide boulevards are segregated from the housing development with landscaping which make pedestrians feel unsafe on these roads. The submission by Halton Council said: "Overabundant vegetation growth in Runcorn has led to worries about personal safety and security at bus stops and on footpaths and concerns over highway visibility on parts of the expressway road." Halton's Local Transport Plan now includes a major expenditure items for landscape modification and maintenance.[21]
  39. English Partnerships acknowledged that the provision of community facilities, such as playgrounds and community centres in many New Towns was not adequate and that some open spaces were not very well planned. It accepted that it was now having to address "some of the poorer work that was done 20 or 30 years ago."[22]
  40. The low density development in the New Towns has created major problems; there is excessive dependence on the car and poor bus services.
  41.  The New Towns' town centres are often very unattractive and, as a result, they are losing shoppers to nearby centres. Masterplans are needed to create high quality public spaces and a mix of uses on traditional high streets, including evening leisure activity.
  42. A substantial amount of the housing developed by the New Town Development Corporations has passed its useful life and will require phased redevelopment over the next decade. There are particular problems with 'innovative' design and materials.
  43. The Councils have a major neighbourhood management problem in the housing estates and local shopping centres which they inherited from the New Town Corporations. This is caused by the combination of the Radburn design and the fragmented ownership of property and land which was a result of right-to-buy sales and the 'fire' sales just before the corporations closed down. This has frequently produced neighbourhoods which are poorly maintained and perceived by residents to be unsafe. The poorly designed estate shopping centres tend to attract antisocial behaviour in areas with few social facilities.
  44. It is important in any new development to ensure the adequate provision of new community facilities and play areas, rather than rely on existing facilities, and to establish management arrangements and funding to ensure long term maintenance.
  45. Social and Economic Needs

  46.  There are wide variations in the social and economic needs of the New Towns which are related in many cases to their position in the regional economies and transport links. The New Towns can be divided into three groups:
  47. - the towns around London

    - those with good major transport connections

    - those that have failed to achieve their potential, with high levels of deprivation

    They all have distinctive population profiles which vary from the national population structures and are based on the period when they experienced fastest growth.

    Towns around London

  48. The New Towns around London have benefited from the strength of the regional economy but have social problems with pockets of high levels of deprivation in areas of general prosperity. The submission by Peterborough Council pointed to neighbourhoods with "anti-social behaviour, breakdown in family life and transport/mobility problems which are not visible in the targets measured to access Government funds."[23] On our visit to Harlow we were told that the original design of the town encouraged evenly spread development of social and professional housing to create mixed communities. This has led to deprivation problems being spread rather than concentrated. The council argued that this lack of concentration counts against it when bidding for regeneration funding.
  49. There is a shortage of affordable housing problematic in some of these New Towns. The memorandum from Milton Keynes Economic Partnership pointed out that as a result of the shortage, there was a considerable amount of commuting. The Partnership called for new initiatives to provide a range of affordable homes both for rent and for sale.[24]
  50. Towns with good major transport connections and established centres

  51. The situation is similar in Warrington and Telford where their proximity to the motorway network and their established urban centres have helped to promote relatively successful economic centres. However, Telford in particular has pockets of severe deprivation and is suffering from housing abandonment through a "a collapsing housing market, high crime levels, appalling physical conditions, undesirable private landlords and high levels of deprivation."[25] The council points out that, while it has pockets of severe social and economic needs, with wards and enumeration districts in the top 10 per cent most deprived in England, overall the town is not in the top 50 on one of the Government's indicators of multiple deprivation and is not therefore eligible for Neighbourhood Renewal Funding.
  52. Towns that have failed to achieve their potential with high levels of deprivation

  53. Towns including Runcorn, Skelmersdale, and Corby have fallen far short of their target populations and have high levels of deprivation. Skelmersdale had a target of 80,000 population but has so far only achieved 44,000, West Lancashire District Council pointed out that the Skelmersdale Development Corporation was wound up too early before it had reached its completed state.[26] Runcorn now has a population of 62,700 against a target of 100,000. Corby had a target population of 125,000 but has so far only achieved 60,000.
  54. As well as a poor infrastructure and bad housing discussed above, these towns have higher levels of unemployment. With the exception of Corby, these towns are within the top 50 districts on one of the indicators in the Government's Index of Multiple Deprivations, which makes them eligible for Neighbourhood Renewal Funding. All the wards in Runcorn New Town fall within the top 10 per cent most deprived in England and has had EU Objective One funding since 1994.
  55. The age profile of those who live in New Towns does not reflect national age structures because of the young families which moved in when the major housing developments were built. This is now causing problems for the first generation New Towns. Welwyn has "a problem with a high proportion of its population being elderly putting increased pressure on local services," according to the local authority.[27]
  56. There are wide variations in the economic and social needs of the New Towns, but they almost all include areas of deprivation with high levels of unemployment and housing need. In those towns around London, there is a major need for affordable housing.
  57.  Towns like Runcorn, which are in regions where there are significant levels of deprivation have benefited from major EU funds and other regeneration programmes. However, only five of the 22 towns which have high levels of overall deprivation are eligible for Neighbourhood Renewal Funds. Those towns that are polarised with areas of prosperity alongside pockets of severe needs are not eligible for major regeneration funds.
  58. We recommend the criteria for targeting Neighbourhood Renewal Funds should be reviewed so that small areas, such as enumeration districts which are among the 10 per cent most deprived in England, should be eligible for support irrespective of the prosperity of the wider areas, in which they are located.
  59. The population profiles do not reflect national age structures, and the concentrations around particular age groups are placing increased demands on social services, particularly when the population ages.


1   32 new towns were established across the UK between 1947 and 1970. The Committee decided to focus on the 22 New Towns for which the DTLR has responsibility which include 21 New Towns in England and Cwmbran in Wales. The liabilities and assets held by New Towns Corporations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with the exception of Cwmbran, were passed on to the Local Authorities when the corporations closed but the liabilities and assets of the 22 are held by English Partnerships. Back

2   Reith's recommendations were summarised in EP's evidence NT 33 (b) Back

3   The eight towns around London in the first generation of New Towns were Basildon, Bracknell, Crawley, Harlow, Hatfield, Hemel Hempstead, Stevenage and Welwyn Garden City. The other first generation New Towns were Corby, Cwmbran, Newton Aycliffe, and Peterlee. The second generation New Towns were Redditch, Runcorn, Skelmersdale and Washington. The third generation New Towns were Central Lancashire, Milton Keynes, Northampton, Peterborough, Telford and Warrington. Back

4   NT23 Back

5   NT20 Back

6   See visit note Back

7   NT12(a) Back

8   NT12 Back

9   NT29 (a) Back

10   NT18 Back

11   NT39 Back

12   NT26 Back

13   NT07 Southgate was demolished in 1989 and replaced by conventional family housing managed by two housing associations. The housing associations which own Castlefields have recently decided to demolish parts of the estate because of the combination of physical and social problems  Back

14   See visit notes Back

15   This is discussed further in the Committee's report on Empty Homes HC 240-I March 2002 Back

16   Chapters 5 & ll of the Housing Green Paper, Quality and Choice: A Decent Home for All

published in April 2000, set out proposals to license private landlords and limit Housing Benefit Back

17   Q98 & 99 Back

18   NT33 (d) Back

19   NT08(a) Back

20   NT12 (a) Back

21   NT07 Back

22   Q38 Back

23   NT24 Back

24   NT32 Back

25   NT26 Back

26   NTO8 Back

27   NT23 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 29 July 2002