“Right to Buy” and the strange death of the New Town concept

Tim Montgomerie has tweeted that today is the 30th anniversary of the Right to Buy Scheme introduced by Margaret Thatcher.  There is no doubt in my mind that it is a policy that has fundamentally altered the shape and original purpose of the New Town concept, creating something of an identity crisis for these sprawling conurbations which local politicians of all parties are struggling to overcome. As suppliers of social housing on enormous scales, the New Towns, like Basildon, were inspired by the concept of  Garden Cities, in a time when big government still believed it could socially engineer society. The New Towns Act was passed in 1946 and, between then and 1970, 21 New Towns were built. In a glorious piece of propaganda, the Central Office of Information attempted to explain the concept of these sustainable living areas in an informative cartoon about an ordinary bloke called Charley:

Many of the concepts are eerily prescient in an era when we are concerned with carbon footprints and quality leaving spaces. It’s important to remember, however, that the New Towns are entirely artificial. Unlike other villages, towns and cities, the New Towns had no historic focal point to draw people together. Indeed, in most cases, a huge amount of effort was put into destroying the character and history of the original area, instead of building in sympathy with it. This parliamentary exchange from 1954, between Mr Bernard Braine (as he was then) and Sir Thomas Dugdale reveals how pressure for development land was paramount. In Basildon, this has led to local people asking serious questions about the origins of the place they live in and fighting hard to save what little remains of the pre-New Town identity (e.g. the efforts of the Chalvedon Hall Community Group).

When places are shiny and new, they are usually attractive places to live. However, a home, in its broadest understanding, is not just the fabric of the building – it is the infrastructure that supports a community: roads, utilities and recreational facilities amongst others. The prospect of a new home and services beyond the imagining must have seemed incredible to those leaving the bomb-shattered ruins of the East End. However, with the provision of social housing on unprecedented scales as the foundation of the New Town, it seems obvious with hindsight that  “Right to Buy” would have an enormous effect on their purpose and future expansion.

Don’t get me wrong: “Right to Buy” and its promotion of home ownership encapsulates a fundamentally liberal aspiration. I wouldn’t suggest turning back the clock. However, by encouraging the social housing stock to be sold off, without permitting local authorities to use the proceeds of sale to provide new social housing,  Thatcher effectively destroyed this visionary concept of confident, sustainable communities.  On a social level, the gap between those who could afford to buy and those who could not became immediately visible in the heart of local communities.  On a planning level, physical expansion was required to attempt to meet the needs of those who had been promised a home but for whom there were few council properties available.

Skip forward thirty years and look at the situation of the New Towns now.

Just as they were built at a similar time, their infrastructure is coming to the end of its life at the same time. What would have been an incredible headache for local and national government in any event has been exacerbated by the pressure placed on New Town roads, services and utilities. Doctors surgeries overflow, roads and footpaths crumble, drains and pipes block and burst as capacity is exceeded – and new development encroaches more and more onto the green belts that were designated to provide recreational relief from the urban environment, preserve the distinct identity of urban communities and retain a much-needed connection to our environment. There is a danger in the South East, with regional initiatives such as the Thames Gateway redevelopment, that towns and villages may simply disappear into an anonymous morass of urban sprawl. Government risks failing again to grasp that communities are self-determining and not engineered, spending vast quantities of taxpayers’ money on enormous and totemic projects instead of stimulating the local economy by assuring the basic fabric of the places in which we already live.

“Right to Buy” is not to blame for the ills of the New Town. However, just as we can appreciate the liberation of the individual and the creation of opportunities to satisfy aspiration that it represented, so we should recognise that the fundamental mistakes of its implementation, driven by Thatcher’s peculiarly ideological politics, have contributed significantly to the difficulties faced by local government in sustaining these enormous and artificial conurbations. More importantly, and regardless of government (local and national), the fact that local communities are determined to preserve their past is a reassuring demonstration of the hunger of local people to know and own the identity of the wider space in which they live.

If you are interested in the campaign to save Great Chalvedon Hall, please contact Gary on greatchalvedonhall@hotmail.co.uk who will be able to let you know how you can help.

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