75 years after the first new town
Stevenage town centre, photo BWCSEB1989/CC (Click to enlarge: opens in a new window)
Mark Pickersgill, Stevenage Socialist Party
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the New Towns Act implemented by the post-war Labor government, when on 11 November 1946 Stevenage was designated Britain’s first new town.
The Labor Party’s landslide victory in the 1945 general election on a radical platform represented a resounding rejection of Winston Churchill and the Conservative party. The working class had defeated fascism and endured six years of struggle and sacrifice. There was to be no return to the 1930s.
The masses demanded a better world and the ruling class was afraid of the revolutionary movements that were taking place all over Europe. It was against this backdrop that the 1945 Labor government established the welfare state, the NHS, free education and nationalized large swaths of industry.
Housing had also become a major priority due to overcrowding and shortages before the war, exacerbated by the destruction of thousands of homes from bomb damage. In London alone, fifty thousand houses had been destroyed. The shortage of social housing was also particularly acute in London where 180,000 families were on the waiting list for public housing, and even before the war 63.5% of families were forced to share the same accommodation with another family.
Many people with children lived in private rooms or with grandparents in crowded conditions. The New Towns Act 1946 was part of the post-war mass social housing program to alleviate Britain’s housing shortage, and by the early 1950s an average of 300,000 social housing per year were built across the country.
Concept of new towns
The concept of new towns had been influenced by the utopian garden city movement of the early 20th century, with William Morris, the socialist textile designer, being one of their inspirations. The idea was that they would bring the countryside into the city, and that industry and housing would be separated. In addition, cities had to be located on the outskirts of large cities. Families with children would live in houses with a garden, only single people would live in flats or flats.
Coinciding with the mass social housing building scheme, the Greater London Plan was introduced. This was intended to limit London’s expansion and create a 20-mile green zone around it. This meant that no large-scale social housing projects like the 1930s Becontree estate in Dagenham would be allowed in London or on its boundaries.
New towns in London had to be located twenty to thirty miles outside of the city, and families on London council waiting lists (if they met the criteria to work for a business in London moving into new town) would be offered accommodation in one of eight towns: Stevenage, Basildon, Harlow, Crawley, Hemel Hempstead, Welwyn Garden City, Hatfield and Bracknell.
However, when Stevenage was named as the first new town there was strong opposition to the proposal, particularly from local landowners who balked at the idea that the working classes of London would invade the countryside of the Essex and Hertfordshire. Ultimately, the Labor government defeated those who had opposed the New Towns through legislation in the House of Lords.
The new towns were given the nickname “Cockney Siberia” because it felt like Londoners were being sent to the desert. The phrase ‘new town blues’ was also coined to describe the experience of many young families, who had left vibrant communities in different parts of London to feel isolated in a new city.
My parents had moved with me and my sister from overcrowded accommodation in London to Stevenage. Our mother told us that in London she lived only ten minutes from the West End, and had access to art galleries and theatres. Coming to Stevenage and living next to a field was culture shock to say the least.
These difficulties were overcome and most people took a pragmatic approach to their predicament. After all, the reason the workers left London was to escape the housing shortage. The houses people moved into were far superior to any accommodation they had experienced in London.
Only a tiny minority of people have returned to London. Most people in the 1950s and 1960s who had moved to a new city realized there was no turning back. Back to what?
In London, we lived with our aunt, uncles and grandmother in a small two-bed house with no hot water. Stevenage’s house was a three bedroom house with front and back gardens.
Labor and trade union movements also played an important role in the early history of new towns. The companies that moved from London to Stevenage, for example, already had a well-organized workforce that brought with it its traditions of solidarity and class struggle. These traditions also helped overcome the isolation of early new town life.
The new towns were initially managed by development corporations, not returning control to elected councils until 1980. These development corporations also managed and owned the housing stock and not the local council. Development corporations were non-elected institutions appointed by the government. Like nationalized industries, workers had little say in the planning and allocation of housing. Throughout the early years of Stevenage’s construction, there were clashes between the organized working class and these new municipal corporations.
The leaders of these companies were certainly not from the working class and had a top-down approach to the workers. Decisions about where people were housed and what part of London they came from were made by these unelected officers. Their attitude was sometimes condescending, as if they were doing the workers a favor. For example, the idea of betting shops and pie and mash shops in a new town was frowned upon, after all it represented the seedy side of London life!
It is through the struggles of the labor and trade union movement that the demands of the workers have been satisfied. It was the construction workers who cut down tools across Stevenage and marched en masse to the offices of the development company to demand an end to the ‘lump sum’ on building sites, when a worker would be considered ‘self-employed ” and paid a lump sum. amount of money for the work they did each day or each week.
It was the development company that was handing out the construction contracts after all. Even some people in the company’s offices at the time thought the revolution was coming. On another occasion, a massive strike by trade unionists took place demanding the installation of a footbridge over a main road where workers had been killed crossing it.
There was even a movement of protest against the construction of a road through a beautiful valley in the middle of Stevenage; again, the development company was forced to change its plans.
New towns offered people a new way of life, away from crowded and polluted cities. They have been designed in such a way that the elements of the countryside are preserved within the city, giving the feeling of space, and being surrounded by trees and parks. However, over a million people were relocated away from London between the 1950s and 1990s. This had a hollow effect, with the loss of skilled labor in central London and the breakdown of established communities.
New towns can seem soulless and lack the character of older towns. They were supposed to be self-contained, meaning people would live and work in the same town. This vision does not exist now. Businesses that moved to Stevenage received grants to start with, but now most of those businesses have closed.
The rollback of the reforms introduced by the Labor government of 1945 had a major impact on the new towns. When they were planned, the first generation children were guaranteed housing, and the wait time for a house was only six months, even in the early 1980s. Now, with the sale of public housing and the lack of new social housing, the prospect of obtaining a social house has diminished. Property prices have risen in Stevenage, meaning young people face the prospect of having to move further afield to find affordable accommodation.
The housing issue is as serious today as it was after the Second World War. Conservative and Labor governments since the 1980s have abandoned the idea of building social housing. Overcrowding and homelessness are common, and people are forced to rent private accommodation. Families risk being separated because they are offered accommodation in other parts of the country. This is particularly still the case in London.
We demand a mass social housing program and immediate reform of private rental housing, giving people the right to fair rent and safe housing. It is only within the framework of a democratic socialist planned economy that the question of housing can be properly resolved.
The issue of construction on the green belt around London due to an increase in housing demand will have to be addressed. Under capitalism, there is unplanned economic growth, which results in congested and overcrowded cities. The concept of new towns will again be on the agenda, giving citizens the right to live in decent housing. Under socialism they will be democratically ruled with the full cooperation of the working class.