Thursday, 11 September 2014

Another New Town doomed to fail?

Following the growing controversy over the proposed new town to the east of Henfield, Jane Simmons from “Locals Against Mayfield Building Sprawl" (LAMBS) has sent me the following article showing how some of the ideas here are not as new as we may think. 

As the promotion of Mayfield Market Towns rumbles on, it is easy to forget that Sussex already has a ‘New Town’; just 12 miles up the road.

This New Town is arguably not as ‘new’ as it was a generation ago; but it was at its concept, exactly the sort of visionary place described in Mayfields’ rhetoric.

This ‘New Town’ is, of course, Crawley; built as a post war initiative more than half a Century ago around a quaint Sussex market town in a near perfect location.

In June 1949, Anthony Minoprio proudly presented his Crawley New Town Master Plan to the Crawley Development Corporation as an aspirational blueprint which was, he said, “the framework of a beautiful and efficient town”.

In common with Mayfields Director, Peter Freeman, Mr Minoprio painted an idyllic picture of socially balanced neighbourhoods; built in sympathy with the surrounding countryside, around friendly village greens, a short bus ride from a vibrant town centre.

Mr Minoprio suggested, “The provision of small socially mixed residential areas, each with its own individuality and its own centre, in order to promote neighbourliness and the social development of the town. Practically all homes are within one-third of a mile (536metres) of their neighbourhood shops and within one and a quarter miles of the town centre.

“The character of the individual neighbourhood centres will vary and the design will spring from the natural features of the area,” he continued. “Local place names have been retained for the neighbourhoods in all cases and the affix 'Green', which is common in the Crawley area, has suggested the creation of a typical English Green at the centre of each neighbourhood.”

So what went wrong?

It is well documented that Mayfields’ master plan for Sussex is a scaled down version of a Garden City; very similar to those being promoted by this government, and in particular by Lord Matthew Taylor, the man behind the UK’s planning reforms (the NPPF). It is also well documented that Lord Taylor is one of Mayfield Market Towns’ Directors, and has been widely criticised for having a perceived conflict of interest. 

Earlier this year his fellow director, Peter Freeman entered the Wolfson Prize for a new garden city. What is most unsettling about Mr Freeman’s submission, titled ‘A Shared Vision’ is that it bears an uncanny resemblance to Minoprio’s “visionary” Master Plan for Crawley New Town.

“We all love villages,” Mr Freeman begins, enthusiastically. “Our Garden City comprises a series of walkable neighbourhoods within a radius of 500 metres (exactly the same size as Minoprio’s). Enough people would live in each neighbourhood to populate a two form entry primary school and to support a viable cluster of shops, restaurants, hairdressers… We envisage that Village Green would be on a main route through the neighbourhood to boost customer support for local traders and bus services.”

And in common with Mr Minoprio, Mr Freeman is also keen to embrace the countryside in his design; which he says would include, “at least one linear park running through the town (incorporating landscape features like a stream or ancient woodland).”

Both plans extol the virtues of public transport (despite the fact that Mayfields would have no railway line) and both envisage the town becoming so successful that local people will be happy to live, work and play within its parameters.

Crawley is to be a self-contained and economically balanced town,” stated Mr Minoprio. “Not a dormitory town to London”.
Once again, Mr Freeman agrees with his predecessor;

“The New Market Town is not designed to be a commuter town to serve London, but rather a town which concentrates on keeping travel local”. (It goes without saying that without a railway line, residents would have little choice).

But perhaps the most worrying thing about this comparison is that Crawley was already failing in its promises just months after the first brick was laid. Despite pledging, like Mayfields, to provide adequate affordable housing for young families, this vision was never realised, even for its very first residents. Crawley’s location in an affluent part of Sussex made this promise impossible. In May 1950 Hansard reported that rents on homes in Crawley New Town were already “beyond the reach of the average wage earner” (475).

 It is too late to go back and correct the mistakes made in Crawley, but we can at least do our best to prevent a repeat. The NPPF promises to allow local people more say in housing decisions because they know the needs of their area best of all. However, in reality these decisions all go before a Government Inspector and are ultimately still made at a national level.

Two years ago (Speaking at the Institute of Civil Engineering in March 2012) the Prime Minister, David Cameron cited planners like Minoprio and his contemporary, Patrick Abercrombie as an inspiration, saying;

“It seems to me that our Post War predecessors had the right idea, embodied in a visionary plan prepared by Patrick Abercrombie in 1944. His plan underpinned the South East’s economic success by proposing well-planned and well-located new towns…”

Maybe Mr Cameron was unaware at the time that Mr Abercrombie was also a founding member of the CPRE; an organisation which is bitterly opposed to lack of protection offered to the countryside by the NPPF and is fighting hard against Mayfield’s proposals.

One thing that we can be sure of is that Crawley has fallen rather short of Abercrombie’s vision for a “beautiful and efficient” new town… and Mayfields (should it ever be built) looks to be heading for the same fate.

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