Stevenage Town Centre, photo BWCSEB1989/CC

Stevenage Town Centre, photo BWCSEB1989/CC   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Mark Pickersgill, Stevenage Socialist Party

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the New Towns Act implemented by the post-war Labour government, when on the 11 November 1946, Stevenage was designated Britain’s First New Town.

The Labour Party’s overwhelming victory in the 1945 general election on a radical platform represented a resounding rejection of Winston Churchill and the Tory party. The working class had defeated fascism and had endured six years of struggle and sacrifice. There was to be no going back to the 1930s.

The masses demanded a better world, and the ruling class was fearful of the revolutionary movements taking place throughout Europe. It was against this background that the 1945 Labour government set up the welfare state, the NHS, free education and nationalised vast swathes of industry.

Housing had also become a major priority because of overcrowding and shortages before the war, exacerbated by the destruction of thousands of homes due to bomb damage. In London alone, fifty thousand homes had been destroyed. The shortage of social housing was also particularly acute in London where 180,000 families were on council house waiting lists, and even before the war 63.5% of families were forced to share the same dwelling with another family.

Many people with children lived in privately rented rooms or with grandparents in overcrowded conditions. The 1946 New Towns Act was part of the post-war mass social housing building programme carried out to alleviate the shortage of housing in Britain, and by the early 1950s an average of 300,000 council houses a year were being built across the country.

New towns concept

The new towns concept had been influenced by the utopian garden city movement from the early part of the 20th century, William Morris, the socialist textile designer, being one of their inspirations. The idea was that they would bring the countryside into the town, and that industry and housing would be separated. Also, the towns had to be located on the periphery of the major cities. Families with children would live in houses with gardens, only single people would live in flats or apartments.

Coinciding with the mass council house building programme, the Greater London Plan was introduced. This set out to limit the expansion of London and create a green zone of 20 miles around it. This meant that no more large-scale council housing projects like the 1930s Becontree estate in Dagenham would be permitted within London or on its boundaries.

London’s new towns were to be located twenty to thirty miles outside the city, and families on London council waiting lists (if they fitted the criteria of working for a company in London that was relocating to a 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 became designated as the first new town, there was strong opposition to the proposal, particularly from local landowners who baulked at the thought that the working classes from London would be invading rural Essex and Hertfordshire. In the end the Labour government defeated those people 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 people from London were being sent into the wilderness. The phrase ‘new town blues’ was also coined to describe the experience of many young families, who had moved from vibrant communities in different parts of London, to feeling isolated in a new town.

My parents had moved with me and my sister out of overcrowded accommodation in London to Stevenage. Our mother told us that in London she lived only ten minutes away from the West End, and had access to art galleries and theatres. To come to Stevenage and be living next to a field was a culture shock to say the least.

These difficulties were overcome and most people had a pragmatic approach to their predicament. After all, the reason workers had left London was to escape the shortage of housing. The houses people moved into were far superior to any accommodation they had experienced in London.

Only a tiny minority of people went back to London. Most people in the 1950s and 1960s who had moved to a new town realised there was no going back. Back to what in fact?

In London we were living with our aunt, uncles and grandmother in a tiny two-bed house with no hot water. The house in Stevenage was a three-bedroom house with front and back garden.

The labour and trade union movements also played a significant role in the early history of new towns. Companies that relocated from London to Stevenage for instance, already had well-organised workforces who brought their traditions of solidarity and class struggle with them. These traditions also helped to overcome the isolation of early new town life.

Development corporations

The new towns were run initially by development corporations, not handing back control to elected councils until 1980. These development corporations also managed and owned the housing stock and not the local council. The development corporations were unelected government appointed institutions. Just like the nationalised industries, workers had little say in planning, and the allocation of housing. Throughout the early years of the building of Stevenage, there were confrontations between the organised working class and these new town corporations.

The officers of these corporations were certainly not from the working class, and had a top-down approach to workers. Decisions on 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 workers a favour. For instance the idea of betting shops and pie and mash shops in a new town was frowned upon, after all that represented the seedy side of London life!

It was through the struggles of the labour and trade union movement that workers’ demands were met. It was the building workers who downed tools throughout Stevenage and marched en masse to the offices of the development corporation demanding an end to the ‘lump’ on the building sites, when a worker would be regarded as ‘self-employed’ and paid a lump sum of money for the work that they did each day or week.

It was the development corporation which handed out the building contracts after all. Even some of the people in the offices of the corporation at the time thought that the revolution was coming. On another occasion, a mass strike of trade unionists took place to demand the installation of a footbridge over a main road where workers had been killed crossing it.

There was even a protest movement over the building of a road through a beautiful valley in the middle of Stevenage; again the development corporation was forced to change its plans.

New towns did offer people a new way of life, away from the overcrowded and polluted cities. They were planned so that elements of the countryside were preserved within the town, giving the feeling of space, and being surrounded by trees and parks. However, over a million people were rehoused away from London between the 1950s and 1990s. This had a hollowing-out effect, with the loss of a skilled workforce in inner London and the breakup of established communities.

New towns can appear soulless and lack some of the character of older towns. They were supposed to be self-contained, meaning that people would live and work in the same town. This vision does not exist now. Companies that moved to Stevenage were given subsidies to begin with but now most of these companies have closed down.

The rolling back of the reforms that were introduced by the 1945 Labour government has had a major impact on the new towns. When they were planned, the children of the first generation were guaranteed housing and the waiting time for a house was only six months, even in the early 1980s. Now with the sale of council housing and the lack of any new social housing, the prospect of getting a council house has diminished. Property prices have risen in Stevenage, meaning that young people face the prospect of having to move further away to find affordable accommodation.

The issue of housing is as stark now as it was after World War Two. Tory and Labour governments since the 1980s have abandoned the idea of council house building. Overcrowding and homelessness are rife, and people are forced into private rented accommodation. Families face being separated because they are being offered accommodation in other parts of the country. This is particularly the case again in London.

We demand a mass council housing building programme and an immediate reform of privately rented accommodation, giving people the right to a fair rent and secure accommodation. Only under a democratic socialist planned economy can the housing issue be properly resolved though.

The question of building on the green belt around London because of an increase in demand for housing will have to be confronted. 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 people the right to live in decent housing. Under socialism they will be run democratically with the full cooperation of the working class.