New Town Utopia

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Basildon: a new town utopia

In 1948 the Central Office of Information produced a short animated film selling the idea of the New Town. It shows city-dwellers crammed into inadequate housing, facing the hellish daily commute on overcrowded public transport, choking on fumes from traffic and from factories at the end of every street.

In contrast it offers the New Town, built with people and communities in mind; with spacious new houses, huge parks, industrial estates away at the edge of town and a job within walking distance for every man. Schools on your doorstep, shops and pubs, theatres and concert halls: here every family could flourish.

Those of us who grew up in new towns will recognise the blueprint — yet somehow the lived experience of these post-war towns never quite matched the concept.

Christopher Ian Smith’s thoughtful documentary New Town Utopia investigates this contradiction. The film is about Basildon, an Essex town which was part of the first round of post-war new towns, but it could equally be the story of Harlow, where I grew up, and no doubt any number of the new towns from Crawley to East Kilbride.

The film begins with the words of Lewis Silkin MP, minister of town and country planning in Clement Attlee’s 1945–51 Labour government. He implemented the New Towns Act of 1946 which sought to deal with the housing shortage caused by crumbling slums in the cities and brought to crisis point by the Second World War, when many homes were destroyed and none were built.

Silkin (voiced by Jim Broadbent) talks of creating a “new type of citizen” with a “sense of beauty” and “civic pride”, building mixed council housing that will end social segregation, encouraging architectural innovation and artistic vision. As we listen to his words we see images of Basildon today — drab concrete structures, underpasses and empty shops.

Basildon residents talk about their experience growing up in the town. Those who moved there from the East End of London as kids recall the huge amount of space — big houses, their own gardens, town parks and countryside like they’d never seen before.

Factories and offices provided jobs — for the men, at least — and trade union organisation and socialist politics were rife. Social clubs and meeting rooms allowed a political culture to thrive. A former Labour councillor recalls that Basildon used to be known as “Moscow on the Thames”.

There is a strong focus on the arts, interviewing punks, poets and artists, many of whom emphasise that they started out in publicly funded art centres, theatre groups and after-school clubs with plentiful supplies.

There is a sense that there were problems with the new towns from the beginning — that the people planning and designing the towns had no real idea about working class life and that they were building towns they would never have to live in.

The former councillor tells of when he was invited to the opening of a new estate, but the rabbit-warren of alleyways meant that he couldn’t find the event. He christened the estate Alcatraz.

One message comes across very clearly: the selling off of council houses under Margaret Thatcher was the crucial turning point. It “changed everything overnight”, says one interviewee. The ethos changed, and communities fragmented as new home owners sold up and moved on.

Factories were replaced by warehouses with poorly-paid jobs, and many residents now commute to London — once again crammed into trains and choking on fumes on the A13.

Add to this the funding cuts which have decimated local services, from theatres to playgrounds, and you arrive at the poignant stories of substance dependency and mental health problems that some of the interviewees have faced.

The hope in this film comes from the creative community who are determined to breathe life back into the town, with or without public funding.

The film points to one very obvious response — to bring back and extend the decent public housing that is so desperately needed across Britain, and to end austerity.

But it also led me to think about what our vision might be, beyond that of the town planners’ notion of how working class people want to live.