Lessons from the British and French New Towns
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Lessons from the British and French New Towns

Paradise Lost?

David Fée, Bob Colenutt, Sabine Coady Schäbitz, David Fée, Bob Colenutt, Sabine Coady Schäbitz

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eBook - ePub

Lessons from the British and French New Towns

Paradise Lost?

David Fée, Bob Colenutt, Sabine Coady Schäbitz, David Fée, Bob Colenutt, Sabine Coady Schäbitz

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About This Book

Lessons from the British and French New Towns: ParadiseLost? explores the evolution of the New Towns in both France and the UKfrom several perspectives including public policy, sociology, geography andheritage.

UK and French New Towns have many similarities in terms ofthe role of the national state in tackling urgent problems of housing and urbangrowth and in promoting innovative design and architecture. These innovative planned settlements haveleft a contested and complex legacy, but are once again on the political andurbanisation agenda in Europe, where a push for growth of housing and thedesire for sustainability are the new drivers of urban planning and design.After years of the private development market being seen as the principalinstrument of urban growth and planning, it is time to assess the urban legacyand the heritage of the UK and French New Towns. This book contrasts theirevolution on both sides of the Channel and shows what can be learned about postwar state planning and the future planning of new settlements.

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Part I

The New Towns and Policymakers

Chapter 1

Reinventing the Healthy Garden City: Ebbsfleet’s Learning from the New Towns

Elanor Warwick


Many of the challenges experienced by the New Town remain the same 50 years on: funding major infrastructure, land acquisition and planning still requires national political and policy support. In the scramble to deliver the thousands of new homes needed, the British government is revisiting policy levers and programmes of the past. Ebbsfleet, a large new settlement in Kent, two decades into realisation, shows how subsequent government visions overlay the historic New Town principles, the characteristics underpinning Garden Cities or the newly emerging Healthy New Towns (HNT). Rediscovering New Town design principles has prompted a reinvention of the historic planning mechanisms that delivered them. The influence of policy actors is contrasted to Ebbsfleet Development Corporation’s emergent role as the practical delivery agency. Comparing criteria for recent government new settlement programmes reveals the Housing Ministry’s rapid shift from promoting sustainable development to facilitating private-sector investment in exchange for guaranteed housing delivery. A similar dilution is seen in the HNT Network, where the New Towns’ provision of health-giving environments for populations escaping from city slums has been supplanted by a broader (more diffuse) facilitation of healthy wellbeing. In a fluid policy context, Ebbsfleet’s adoption of these principles could cynically be read as market-led place rebranding not reinvention. Will the historic lessons of the early New Towns have been learnt so that the new wave of Garden Cities or Healthy New Towns fare better?
Keywords: Planning policy; Garden Cities; Healthy New Towns; Ebbsfleet; eco-towns; NPPF


The 2017 Conservative government was elected on a manifesto pledge to deliver one million homes by the end of 2020. This desire to alleviate the housing shortage explains the revived enthusiasm for programmes to build new settlements. While many new homes will be infills to existing places, construction at this unprecedented rate (300,000 new homes a year, equivalent to completing ten of Ebenezer Howard’s model Garden Cites each year) necessitates an escalation in completed new communities. New settlements of all scales, from Garden Villages (around 2,500 homes), Garden Cities (15,000–30,000 homes) to larger New Towns (50,000–100,000 homes) will be required. Yet even the smallest village takes decades from conception through construction to inhabitation, with risky initial planning stages highly susceptible to public opposition however much the need for more homes is acknowledged. The post-war New Towns were experimental, trialling new social and design concepts, not all of which proved popular, or lasted over time. Planners and designers may have successfully incorporated the best of learning into their current designs; however, politicians and public still treat the idea of New Towns with suspicion (Clapson, 2017).
Others have explored the state’s historically changing role in housing delivery (Boughton, 2018; Clapham, 2019; Hall, 2014) and that New Towns depended on many stakeholders (central government departments, local planning officers, private-sector developers, existing communities, potential residents, the media), each with distinct motivations, working within a common context of English planning policy. Christophers (2013) describes this ‘monstrous hybrid’ of market and state mechanisms that emerged from the political and economic shift from the welfare state which created the post-war New Towns to the current neoliberal market-dominated housing regime.
Subsequent governments’ visions of New Towns reflect these shifts while incorporating earlier planning and design concepts into their plans for large-scale new places. The post-war New Towns programme (1946–1976) repeated the geographical separation of Howard’s self-sufficient and socially mixed Garden Cities (1898), as well as the suburban layouts of the ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’ built under Addison’s 1919 Act. More recent waves of new build communities repeat and elaborate similar spatial and social themes, with the Millennium Communities (1997) evolving into Eco-towns (2003), then locally led Garden Cities (2014) morphing into Garden Settlements (2015). The latest policy solution is a call to build ‘Millennium Towns’ in the growth corridors leading out of London (Airey & Blakeway, 2019). This cyclical repetition of key thematic aspects (emphasising greenery, parkway infrastructure linking suburban density housing, communal amenities to encourage neighbourly interaction, modern forms of employment and light industry) reinforces the resilience of certain principles. These reappear in the various models for large-scale settlements, yet the differences in each version reflect the challenges and aspirations of their time. This chapter argues that the reinvented Garden Cities are merely one further iteration of a long planning and urban design trajectory.
There is extensive academic writing on the New Towns’ social, economic and aesthetic legacies – as later chapters explore on both sides of the Channel – but less on their policy legacies. The 1946 New Towns Committee devised five planning tenets which were to shape the new settlements. These were: creating socially mixed and balanced communities; establishing active neighbourhood life to counter the anonymity of city living; practically separating pedestrians from road traffic; economic self-containment to attract employment and industry; and governance based on the development corporation. Clapson (2017) notes these historical aims have an ‘awkward’ relationship to much modern planning policy but have not wholly been discarded. Thus, this chapter sets out which New Town lessons have informed and influenced current government policy makers, and how these policies are being embedded in practice, driving planners’ and developers’ actions and choices.
The new housing settlement Ebbsfleet in Kent is a case study of contemporary practices learning from the New Town precedents and the reinvestment of these lessons to address specific contextual challenges of timing and location. Ebbsfleet has been described as England’s first New Town since the 1960s (Adonis & Rogers, 2014) and was rebranded the first Garden City for a generation (BBC News, 2014). By 2035, it will have 15,000 homes across six neighbourhoods (Ebbsfleet Central, Ebbsfleet Green, Northfleet Embankment West and East, Swanscombe Peninsular and Eastern Quarry, now called Whitecliffe). Appropriating New Town goals of master-planned neighbourhoods nestling within an enticing accessible public realm, the developers’ large-scale landscaping is reinventing the Garden of England in Ebbsfleet’s post-industrial geography of clay and cement quarries. Finally, by exploring the evolving role of Ebbsfleet Development Corporation (EDC) as a variation of the recently revived New Town Development Corporations (NTDC), this chapter considers the influence that policy actors, politicians, institutions like the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) or the National Health Service (NHS) have over the EDC as the practical delivery agency responsible for realising a healthy, popular, economically sustainable, new settlement.

Transferable Lessons from the New Towns

In 2006, Oxford Brooks University identified transferable lessons from the Mark I and II New Towns (Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), 2006). This learning was intended to be applied to the Housing Growth Areas (Thames Gateway, Ashford, the London/Cambridge corridor and Milton Keynes) named in the Labour government’s 2003 Sustainable Communities Plan (ODPM, 2003). Fifteen years later, these remain target areas for increased housing. As the Ebbsfleet example shows, despite policy and political shifts, the same problems reoccur. The 2006 review identified policy lessons from the New Towns that are still pertinent today:
  • bipartisan political support is essential for new settlements;
  • variable policy language often describes the same aims (the intention to create sustainable communities or social mix closely echoes the New Towns’ aspirations for social balance);
  • funding and delivering major infrastructure sufficiently early requires political and economic incentives;
  • effective master planning and neighbourhood design is vital in establishing place-image; and
  • the successful marketing of new settlements relies on this clear place-identity.
In 2020, some factors have become more challenging:
  • the New Towns benefited from stronger belief in public-sector enterprise and investment whereas following Milton Keynes, reliance on volume housebuilders/developers increased;
  • current new settlements are likely to involve greater amounts of brownfield development than the greenfields used by the New Towns;
  • the NTDCs were setup from the start as long-term landlords (whereas until 2020, EDC did not own land, relying on partners to manage houses or places); and
  • while lengthy negotiations of planning agreements were virtually unknown for the NTDCs, extensive resources and timescales for negotiation are now a key challenge.

Reinvigorated Mechanisms for Planning New Settlements

Two major policy shifts in planning that occurred since Labour’s Sustainable Communities Plan were the Coalition government’s rationalisation of national planning guidance into the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) (DCLG, 2012) and the Localism agenda (TCPA, 2018). Reviving government support for good quality design is seen as a way to encourage greater public acceptance of new housing. Yet, this current tentative rediscovery of placemaking is far from the design-led ethos of earlier programmes such as the Millennium Communities or the New Towns themselves.
Design thinking from the original New Towns has influenced countless examples of new neighbourhoods and housing, and following chapters describe their architectural legacy. Spatial lessons from their planning has been distilled into the TCPA’s Garden City principles (TCPA, n.d., 2014), with best practice guidance on good placemaking and local distinctiveness emphasising the desirability of ‘Town/Country’ hybrids rather than a sharp dichotomy of urban or rural places. These ideas were embedded into national policy via the new NPPF which required local authorities to consider if large-scale developments following Garden City principles were a way of achieving sustainable development. This indirect consideration of the principles sounded weak, but architects’ and planners’ enthusiastic familiarity with the TCPA guidance ensured their practical implementation. However, when revised in 2018, the consultation draft of the NPPF omitted the Garden City principles.
The design and planning community responded robustly, with the principles reinstated in the NPPF (Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG), 2019a). This significance was confirmed by the principles’ inclusion in the recent National Design Guide (MHCLG, 2019b) that sets out the government’s vision of what good design and well-designed places mean in practice.
The 1946 New Towns Act gave original NTDCs powers to designate, build and manage new settlements, within a degree of central government control. Despite being revised in 1981 to allow broader designation of new locations, the Act had only been used three times since 1970; for the two Mayoral Development Corporations in London and the Urban Development Corporation established at Ebbsfleet in 2015 (the EDC).1 The NTDC model had shortcomings (Alexander, 2009; Clapson, 2017; DCLG, 2002) with potential to be more democratically accountable, yet its directive powers were far clearer than subsequent systems of loose central government guidelines (TCPA, 2015). As 2010s Localism devolved responsibility for delivery and governance of national housing programmes from central to local government, the 2017 Neighbourhood Planning Act empowered local level decision-making through ‘locally led’ NTDCs which transferred land acquisition, planning approval and governance from the Secretary of State to Local Authorities. In 2018, the New Towns Act was amended further reinforcing local stewardship, requiring NTDCs to involve local communities directly in their proposed projects. Yet genuine local input is difficult at scale, as is generating the upfront finance for infrastructure and the high-quality places required to overcome local resistance. Although the legal and policy mechanisms to construct new sustainable settlements existed, a few key actors were essential to champion Ebbsfleet Garden City an...

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