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Satellite Towns: The Failed Utopias We Won’t Stop Building

March 11, 2014 by in Journalism



London Student, March 11, 2014

Harlow was sparkling and cosily utopian when it was first built from scratch in west Essex fields. A new-fangled town was just what the public wanted in 1947 – a futurism that rooted itself in the English countryside and bridled all the machinery of war to give everyone a new kitchen and their own car. The new town boasted Britain’s first pedestrianised shopping district; its first residential tower block; the comfortable, familial abstraction of a dozen Henry Moore sculptures; and a system of burrowed subways that could have appeased a colony of rodents.

Panorama caught a group of London transplants and visitors blinking in the main square in 1956: a father from Peckham blinked like he’d never seen daylight so bright before. He didn’t live there, but he wished he did because Harlow was so “modern and clean with plenty of amenities for children”. Harlow was “pram town” then, so named for its superfecundity (its birthrate was three times the national average in the middle of the century) and for the crowds of mothers and children who, before the arrival of spiralling roundabouts and carriageways, could walk from their neighbourhoods to the town centre. The only problem was the lack of older people to babysit those children, the mothers complained to the BBC. Sixty years ago there was nothing old in Harlow.

Today, things that are slightly fusty in Harlow are turned over for quick cash in the twin pawnbrokers that dominate the main square. You can find vestiges of Harlow’s upward mobility in their shelves, jammed between forfeited televisions. There are old people here now. During the day, pensioners and pram-pushers are the only visible inhabitants in Harlow, seen mostly struggling through underpasses and searching for their cars in oversized carparks; everyone in between and not minding children decamps to London for twelve hours a day. Harlow has become a dormitory suburb in the way its original planners could not have imagined when they lovingly plunked the best of British post-war sculpture in its squares and parks.

The gravitational pull of the city transformed Harlow, and many other towns in orbit of the M25, from semi-rural refuges into places for London’s working droves to stash their families and afford a home. The car did the rest of the work. Pram town became SUV crossover city as Harlow sprawled to the south, and easy walks to the shops became long, circuitous drives. On the walk into town from the train station, the route melts from wide pedestrian and cyclist path into a mess of roundabouts and tangled roads that people not in cars were never meant to cross. In terms of public transport, the most accessible part of Harlow is the tanning salon tucked beneath the station.

Change is coming to Harlow again, as more and more London workers are squeezed from the city into its adjacent towns. The mincer of south east property development is already chewing into Harlow’s supply of office space, converting a few corporate blocks into new footholds for commuters and London transplants. There’s clearly an appetite for dense living in Harlow – or at least a need for quick exits – even if it comes at the expense of the town’s last remnants of economic independence.

It’s easy to be a smug urbanite about Harlow, but the town’s failed futurism should be a warning for Londoners being priced into farther-flung boroughs each year, and for the policymakers who want to solve the city’s housing crisis with a new generation of blank slate developments. Labour has pledged to build five new towns by 2020; the housing industry expects most will be London overspill settlements. Shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds announced the plans in November, invoking the postwar building flurry that constructed Harlow as a model. Ed Miliband cited another new town from that era, Stevenage in neighbouring Hertfordshire, in a February article in the Evening Standard outlining his plans for London’s housing crunch. His other example, Milton Keynes, part of the 1960s wave of town construction, is the archetype of failed car-driven planning. “Labour will kick-start the next generation of new towns and garden cities around the capital to ease the pressure on London,” he wrote.

And it’s not just Labour proposing to plant ‘garden cities’ throughout the region. Last year prime minister David Cameron announced government plans to build towns modelled on Letchworth and  Welwyn to tackle a mounting housing deficit. Although he’s allegedly quietly withdrawing his support for the new towns out of fear of a nimby backlash, communities secretary Eric Pickles doubled down on the proposals for two ‘garden cities’ as recently as January and coalition partner Nick Clegg has targeted Buckinghamshire, Warwickshire and Oxfordshire for new town development.

The term garden cities and the invocations of Letchworth and Welwyn are deliberate, crafted to evoke images of the Arts & Crafts idealism of Ebenezer Howard, or for those less informed about the cranky, prescriptive do-gooding of the Victorians, a vague, floral eco-friendliness. Howard’s garden cities were designed to be economically independent, with specified districts for industry, schools, farms, and residential neighbourhoods, and to preserve the surrounding countryside. The later garden suburbs that twisted the garden label were, in many ways, a direct revocation of Howard’s ideals. ‘Garden’ is often just a resonant name used to greenwash urban sprawl. The proposed garden cities of today are explicitly planned be sleepy London satellites and motor cities, gardens only in the planned greens between their roundabouts and, in the case of Gordon Brown’s floundered eco-towns, their Tesco-sponsored sustainability.

Politicians who promise garden cities are responding to a very real need for affordable housing in the UK, particularly in the home counties. Years of slow house building, hampered by land-banking property developers and stubborn locals, have plunged the national housing supply so far below what’s needed that, according to census data, we’ll have to build an extra 145,000 homes each year to meet demand – and that’s a conservative estimate. In London the situation is even more urgent: according to estimates from London Councils, which represents the city’s local authorities, the capital alone will need 800,000 new homes by 2021. A lean housing supply is one of the reasons the average house price in London is expected to rise to £600,000 by 2018, while private rents currently eat up more than half of families’ income in 23 out of 33 boroughs.

The government desperately needs to intervene to accelerate home building. Their proposals, however, replicate the mistakes of postwar construction and towns like Harlow, potentially creating a ring of underserviced and unsustainable dormitory towns for the working classes beyond the green belt – a set of distant banlieues on the Parisian model for London. They’re a plan to rescue London by safely transporting its poorer residents and workers to the countryside and leaving the city as a playground for investors and the rich.

There’s been a cultural shift in London in the last decade, as affluent, and often white, residents reverse their parents and grandparents’ mid-century flight to suburbs and distant towns and set about reclaiming – gentrifying – the neighbourhoods, like Brixton and Peckham, they abandoned generations ago. They’re reaping the benefits of a safer, cleaner London, one where almost every area is now furnished with Starbucks and minor penthouses, and they’re driving everyone else out. In September the Economist called this shift the ‘great inversion’ and published data from luxury estate agent Savills showing that, between the 2001 and 2011 censuses, much of central London went ‘upmarket.’ As areas from Dalston to Peckham experienced an influx of residents of a higher socioeconomic class, the Metroland suburbs, the ideal destination for the first urban refugees in the 1920s and 1930s, went significantly ‘downmarket.’ Their house prices stagnated, and their residents became less wealthy and less white. Clearly, the dream of suburban splendour has rusted for those with a choice, both in Harrow and all along the Metropolitan line and in Cold War new towns like Harlow. It will decay even more as costs of fuel make car ownership and auto-based towns unsupportable.

However, London’s housing ‘crunch’ has been represented as unfixable within the bounds of the M25. There isn’t enough space to build the needed 800,000 homes and house everyone, we’re told, at least without disrupting protected views and overriding nimby influences in planning applications. Meanwhile, new luxury high-rise residential builds rise higher every day in Vauxhall, Stratford, and Canary Wharf, their flats already sold off-plan to foreign investors who may never see them. An Evening Standard investigation found there are more than 700 empty mansions, worth more than £3 billion, in London, most purchased by foreign investors and left to rot. And yet developers are building so many lavish homes in London – a projected 20,000 in the next ten years – that they’re risking saturating the market, even as construction on affordable homes stalls.

There are alternatives to 21st century Harlows. Governments could intervene to force the building of dense, affordable high-rise development in areas where people want to live. Located close to cultural assets and jobs, these developments are not only more inherently sustainable than new towns, but also lead to more culturally nourished and socially enriched lives for their inhabitants.

Jobs could be moved to major cities less affected by the housing crisis. Policies to relocate industry and commerce from London were in place shortly after World War II and could be re-implemented. Other people could be encouraged to move for cultural and educational reasons: funding for both is currently concentrated in London. Rather than moving Londoners to bleak new towns, sustainable living could be encouraged in brownfield plots in the centres of cities like Leeds and Birmingham.

These solutions make more economic and ecological sense than conjuring up entirely new towns in faraway countryside, or would if politicians’ housing policies weren’t explicitly designed to preserve London, and its inflated property prices, for a certain type of person. Insistence on developing new stop valves for London overspill, rather than building within the city or fostering economic and cultural centres elsewhere evidences both a London bias, a jealous guarding of its culture and resources, and a creeping trend of social cleansing of its splendour.  The Heygate estate is razed to make way for expensive developments and its residents pushed into outer boroughs or out of London entirely. Newham council tries to lease properties in Stoke-on-Trent for 500 families on its council house waiting list. And London builds new banlieues to keep crucial workers within commuting distance, but nowhere near its precious property values.

Two years ago Henry Moore’s Family Group sculpture, a landmark in Harlow, was packed up and carted away to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. It returned six months later, but the symbolism was thick: Harlow, however utopian its plans, has become a dim satellite of London, drained of culture and wealth and left to those who can’t afford any better.

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