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New towns and green towns

Britain needs a Green Towns Act. It would confer some of the benefits enjoyed under the New Towns Act and others which have since become important. The need arises because of the problems of finding land for housing and creating sustainable cities. Investment funds are always scarce and homeowners, like developers, find housing land very expensive. Adjoining landowners are militantly NIMBYist. Governments, local and national, are in a quandary – they want to make land available but cannot find suitable sites. A Green Towns Act could provide us with (1) financial equity; (2) optimal land selection; (3) design quality; (4) relatively more sustainable development. Some of these benefits were achieved in the pre-war Garden Cities and post-war New Towns.

Financial Justice

The present arrangements for land development are inequitable. Let us assume that a new motorway, built with taxpayers money, crosses two 500-acre farms and has a junction on each. Motorways cause land near road junctions to become ‘ripe for development’. Farmer George cares for his land and has kept it in beautiful condition, while Farmer Sid has drunk too much and spent too much. Sid’s farm is strewn with old vehicles, horse jumps and trashy fencing. A landscape assessment has placed George’s land in the top category and Sid’s in the lowest category. The planning authority therefore decides to give Sid planning permission for a housing estate while George’s land is given conservation status. The value of Sid’s 500 acre farm rises from £1.5m to £500m. The value of George’s land falls from £1.6m to £1.4m. Taxpayers, whose road made Sid rich, gain nothing. This is inequitable, for Sid, for George and for the Great British public.

Under the New Towns Act (1946) agricultural land was bought at existing use value and passed into the ownership of New Town Development Corporations. In the early New Towns, most of the land was developed for municipally owned housing estates. In the later New Towns, more land was developed by private housebuilders. With the tenants’ right to buy council houses, and the winding up of the Development Corporations, most of the land passed into private ownership. In essence, land was bought at agricultural land prices and sold at housing land prices. Profits went to the public purse, instead of Farmer Sid’s once-grubby trousers. Since roads, services, parks and schools were schools were financed by the public, this was an equitable procedure. The only injustice was to the Sids of the 1950s and 1960s. They did not make a profit and land which their families had worked for generations was requisitioned without compensation for distress and disruption. Yet an acre of land can rise in value from £3,000 to £1,000,000 following a grant of planning permission for housing. This is a 300-fold increase. It would have been fair and wise to compensate the owners of compulsorily purchased farmland at twice existing use values (say £6,000/acre). Betterment gains above this level would flow to individual Green Town Development Corporations.

Optimal Land Selection

Governments and amenity groups favour building on brown land instead of green land, and they are right. But the pressure to expand settlements is inexorable and the stock of brownland will become exhausted. No government in any country has been able to prevent urban expansion. Britain failed, year after year after 1947. Russia failed to control the growth of Moscow, even under communism. Growth occurs because of an expanding population, economic growth and the decline of agriculture. Even if Britain’s population stabilized, urbanization would advance with economic growth, because household size continues to fall and individuals want ever more space - for gardens, roads, parks, universities, boats, home-offices and retail parks. It is possible that this trend will go into reverse. But it behoves us to make contingency plans for the probability that it will continue. We should hope for the best and plan for the worst. Otherwise, every village will become a town, every town will become a city and every city a megalopolis. Instead of allowing existing settlements to grow, house by house, society should make far-sighted plans and start new settlements. This requires a rational selection procedure reflecting majority opinion. The aim should be to build on land which (1) causes the least environmental damage (2) creates the highest values for society. I believe this can best be achieved with a modified GIS-version of the sieve mapping procedure advocated in McHarg’s Design with nature. The modification would be to employ overlays dealing with potential value, like UK agricultural potential maps, in addition to a McHargian set of existing value maps. The GIS-sieving procedure would not take decisions. It would support better decision-making by democratic institutions.

Design Quality

Design quality in the British New Towns can be judged at 3 levels. At the broad scale, of integrating urban development with the existing landscape, New Towns were far more successful than average urbanization developments of their time. Valleys were retained, woods established and skylines protected. This produced logical relationships between built and unbuilt land, as at Hemel Hempsted and Redditch. At the medium scale, of site planning, the New Towns were slightly better than non-New Town developments, mainly because they took the trouble to employ the best design firms available. At the small scale, of detail design, they were much better than contemporary urbanisation. Cycle tracks were created, as at Stevenage and Milton Keynes; more care was taken with design details, as at Cumbernauld; innovations in road design were made, as at Runcorn; experiments in habitat creation took place, as at Warrington. These innovations were possible because investment capital was available and local design teams were determined to plan for the public good and the long term.


Public funds should be used to create public goods. Money gained through the financial provisions of the Green Towns Act should be used to provide a sustainable infrastructure for urban development. Even free-market theorists recognize the economic justification for this type of expenditure. ‘Public goods’ are those which are available to everyone and for which no charge is made. Settlements with a good stock of public goods are relatively more sustainable than those with low stocks. The stock should include footpaths, cycleways, urban woodlands, wild food areas, infiltration ponds, detention ponds, busways and roads. In order to provide what might be termed ‘sustainability goods’, the Green Towns Act should provide for the preparation of:

Green Transport Plans, so that settlements have networks of footways, cycleways and skateways, providing the shortest possible links between origins and destinations.

Earth Plans, so that useful and beautiful landforms are created. In the old New Towns many opportunities were squandered. Hills were leveled, valleys were filled, ‘spoil’ was exported, ‘fill’ was imported. Energy and money were wasted by un-cooordinated operations.

Water Plans, to deal with surface water management by means of detention, infiltration and transpiration. Cities should accumulate and recycle water, as they do knowledge and money. This includes bluewater, greywater and brownwater.

Vegetation Plans, so that new towns use habitat-creation techniques and develop in harmony with nature.

Climate Plans, to improve the local microclimate and thus save energy.

Roads are essential public goods and should be funded from the public purse. But they should not retain the dominant position which they held during the twentieth century.

Many of the objectives outlined above could be achieved by amending the New Towns Act (1946). But there would be significant advantages in new legislation. The 1946 Act has baggage which we need carry no further. Heaviest among these burdens is a disenchantment with central planning. Westminster and Whitehall decided where the new towns should go, often with red-faced opposition from local landowners and local authorities. This problem could be remedied through devolution and central-local-private partnerships. Landowners’ wealth would be doubled and Green Town Development Partnerships would provide sustainably serviced sites. Housing and industrial companies would purchase development sites. Green Towns could be initiated by local, regional or national authorities but the lead organization would have to act in partnership with the other tiers of government and with private developers. The cumbersome nature of this procedure would be mitigated by taking a long-term view. In the first instance, authorities would be answering the question ‘If new settlements ever become necessary, where about in your local area would they go and how can they be made sustainable?’. In our time, these are the key questions. Issues of self-containment, social balance and modal splits, which dominated New Town thinking, have become secondary. We therefore call upon the government to enact a Green Towns Act early in the twenty-first century.


Columbia encyclopaedia entry on Garden Cities.


Olson, D.J. 1986. City as a work of art Newhaven:Yale University Press.

Opher, P. & Bird, C. 1980. British new towns: Runcorn and Warrington. Oxford:Oxford Polytechnic.

Opher, P. & Bird, C. 1981. British new towns: Cumbernauld, Irvine, East Kilbride. Oxford:Oxford Polytechnic.

Opher, P., Bird, C. 1980. British new towns: Runcorn and Warrington. Oxford:Oxford Polytechnic.

Turner, T. 1982. Planning the landscape for a new town. Town and Country Planning. Vol. 51, No. 10, November 1982, pp.267-271.

Turner, T., Landscape planning Hutchinson Education 1986