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A design for life
Local Government Chronicle – 20 September 2007

Before forging ahead with Brown's vision for eco towns, planners must learn from the successes and failures of the new towns built after the Second World War, says Mark Smulian

Gordon Brown wants 'eco towns'. He may not be entirely sure what an eco town would be like to live in, but he has championed the idea in both his acceptance speech of as Labour leader, and his first speech on his proposed legislation. It can thus be expected that eco towns will spring up as an environmentally friendly way to solve the housing shortage.

But some councils are still grappling with the multiple problems caused by the last initiative to provide new homes in self-contained settlements. The new towns are at least 35 years old, and their homes and infrastructure are wearing out simultaneously.

Most councils affected have entire towns - not just individual districts - in need of regeneration, and they must try to correct errors made when the towns were built. Will the prime minister's eco towns avoid dumping similar problems on councils and communities some time in the 2040s?

Some of the new towns' problems were unavoidable; no one could reasonably have foreseen 50 years ago that car ownership would become so widespread, or that the manufacturing industry that underpinned most new towns would decline so rapidly. Other problems result from ideas that were fashionable among planners at the time.

Estates with labyrinthine designs have made crime easy, a separation of people and cars has created threateningly deserted walkways and cheap system-built homes have structurally failed.

These designs were imposed by new town development corporations - quangos that handed the towns to councils only decades later. Urban planners have moved on from these ideas, but will some of their current ones one day prove equally misguided?

Basildon DC leader Malcolm Buckley (Con) says the lesson to learn from the new towns and apply to eco towns is that "you have to design to accommodate people's future aspirations".

No one thought ordinary people would ever own cars en masse, so Basildon's estates were designed without parking space, creating serious congestion now. Nor did anyone think that people who moved from London's slums into Basildon's shiny new social housing would ever be able to own a home. Consequently, a town that consisted almost entirely of social housing could offer little to people who became affluent enough to buy, but who wished to continue to live locally.

Nor did anyone think that the houses would begin to fall apart. Mr Buckley explains: "Our problem is all the infrastructure is crumbling simultaneously. Also, a lot of the estates were built using non-traditional methods and they have not stood the test of time, particularly those built from concrete. We are demolishing and rebuilding homes that are less than 30-years-old in some cases."

Basildon Renaissance, a consortium of public sector partners, is working on the revitalisation of the town centre, which was designed solely for shopping and is deserted in the evenings.

"We must have the only McDonald's in the country that closes by 8pm," Mr Buckley says. "There is a very short business day in the town centre, and it is not an attractive environment in the evenings. We want to introduce a residential element there, with 3,500 new homes, and then encourage restaurants and leisure activities."

He wants new homes to be 'tenure blind' so that it is not visually obvious what is and isn't social housing, in contrast to the town's monolithic estates.

Basildon has done well economically. Mr Buckley says unemployment is below one percent and a successful diversification into services has supplemented the light manufacturing that once dominated local employment. But he says those planning eco towns should look at the new towns' experiences first.

"People aspire to more," he says. "For example, they assumed the working man would never own a car, so there is no parking space, and there was no proper infrastructure that would grow with the town."

Skelmersdale stands at the other economic extreme, with three wards among the 15% most deprived in the country. Bob Livermore, executive manager for housing services at West Lancashire DC, says the town has two fundamental problems - its layout does not work, and it was never finished.

"Skelmersdale was built 30-40 years ago and it is looking tired," he says. "It was built to a design to split people and cars. The concept was sound but has failed because people look out on to back yards but there are no windows onto the streets, so nobody is looking out there, and youths rule the roost."

Many houses were built by problematic non-traditional methods and, says Mr Livermore, are "very basic, so the area is not much to look at even though the houses are little palaces inside. The first impression created is poor so you don't get people wanting to move there."

The council needs to spend 60m to demolish and rebuild the town's least popular areas. It also needs to attract new residents because Skelmersdale was designed for 80,000 people but has only ever had 40,000 residents because the economic troubles of the 1970s meant insufficient employers located there. Its population base has thus never been large enough to attract and sustain the amenities a successful town needs.

Mr Livermore says: "The eco towns have got to learn the lessons, and the biggest problem in Skelmersdale is that it was designed without a town centre. It has a mall, but that is locked up at 6pm and then there is nothing, there are no cafes or pubs there, not even a chip shop. They need to think through how to make these places work."

Northampton is not new, but almost doubled in size when a new town was added to its eastern boundary. Northampton BC leader Tony Woods (Lib Dem) says: "The new town area was bolted onto Northampton, but they also built a dual carriageway which cut it off from the rest of the town. It was built to a layout which kept out cars, but that has encouraged crime because it is full of dark alleys for muggers and no one overlooks the streets."

Most homes were built 35 years ago with a 40-year design life, and are showing their age. While structurally sound, they need new kitchens, bathrooms and roofs and replacement of the costly hot air heating systems.

"There is no need for too much demolition, but it is very low density with huge green expanses that are not well kept and get fly-tipped," Mr Woods says. "We can do a gentle increase in new housing, and limited demolition of the really bad bits."

Mr Woods thinks the closed and decayed shops, dark alleys and isolation are a warning for the eco towns. "Northampton's eastern districts represent cutting-edge design 35 years ago, but the legacy is these problems."

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research calls the new towns' design "both autocratic and experimental, [which] has undermined their performance and created some significantly problematic legacies".

Aspects of new town urban design eventually frustrated the development of sustainable communities, and the institute notes "the drive for innovative design and minimising building and materials costs must be balanced against neighbourhood quality".

The new towns were the eco towns of their day - spacious, green, modern places to replace inner city slums. Eco town planners must surely look to their successes and failures.