A Fortnightly Review
New Town Utopia
Produced, written, filmed by Christopher Ian Smith
With Jim Broadbent, Marc Barnacle, Shaun Badham, Penny Betteridge
A Cult Modern Film
Documentary | 15+ | 80 mins. | Release: 23 July 2018.
By SIMON COLLINGS.
RUN A SEARCH on ‘reputation of Basildon’ and you’ll find the Knowhere Guide. And in it, you’ll find the entry devoted to Basildon. And in that, you’ll find the list of ‘worst things’ about the town. Not surprisingly, the list is hardly encouraging: ‘The people. The pubs. The shops. The people. The crappy market. The people.’ ‘Loud mouthed thugs and scroats who swear a lot. Almost total lack of culture apart from drinking and eatin junk food.’ ‘The usual New Town heritage issues. No long term roots established.’ ‘Totally horibble [sic] and utterly dreadful. I lived there about 5 years ago. The emotional scars are still there. The total arse of the UK.’
In the interest of balance I checked the website’s list of ‘best things’. This included: ‘The A13 cos it takes u out of Basildon’; ‘there are none i hate it’; ‘watching louis’s head getting caved in with a plastic spoon’; ‘DOUBLE LOCKING MY FRONT DOOR AT NIGHT.’ A few people, a very small minority, had posted positive comments.
Basildon, or ‘Baz’ as it’s referred to by locals, wasn’t meant to be like this. The vision for Britain’s post-war ‘New Towns’ described prosperous and happy communities – places of architectural and natural beauty which would, it was hoped, create a better type of person. The gap between the political vision, and the reality as recounted by local residents, is huge. This is the focus of New Town Utopia, a new documentary feature by Christopher Ian Smith. The film raises many questions, and hints at some possible answers.
The narrative is structured around key passages from the speech to the House of Commons by Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning, introducing the second reading of the New Towns Bill, on 2 May 1946. Silkin (via Hansard) said:
The towns will be divided into neighbourhood units, each unit with its own shops, schools, open spaces, community halls and other amenities…I am most anxious that the planning should be such that the different income groups living in the New Towns will not be segregated…
I want to see the New Towns gay and bright, with plenty of theatres, concert halls, and meeting places. I should like to see cricket and football played by the youth of the town instead of being watched by them…The New Town should provide valuable experience in the best use of leisure, a commodity which is, and should become, more and more plentiful…
It is a remarkable thing that friendliness, neighbourliness, comradeship, and the spirit of helpfulness—all these things are only seen in the villages and in the slums. The spirit of the slums is indeed remarkable… But when the slums are cleared, and the people transferred to a new housing estate, all this friendliness and neighbourliness seems to disappear… Our aim must be to combine in the New Town this friendly spirit of the former slum, with the vastly improved health conditions of the new estate but it must be a broadened spirit embracing all classes of society…
We must develop in those who live in the towns, an appreciation of beauty. I am a firm believer in the cultural and spiritual interest of beauty. The New Towns can be experiments in design as well as in living. They must be so laid out that there is ready access to the countryside for all. This combination of town and country is vital. Lack of it is perhaps the biggest curse of the present-day town dweller. I believe that if all these conditions are satisfied, we may well produce in the New Towns a new type of citizen, a healthy, self-respecting, dignified person with a sense of beauty, culture and civic pride.
In the long run, the New Towns will be judged by the kind of citizens they produce, by whether they create this spirit of friendship, neighbourliness and comradeship. That will be the real test…
Silkin’s words are heard at intervals in the film, read by actor Jim Broadbent, and provide a framework. The degree to which Basildon realised these ideals is explored through the testimony of current and onetime residents, intercut with archive footage, and shots of the streets, alleyways, parks and shopping centres of the town. The film’s participants are briefly identified by first name only – Vince, Joe, Wendy – the viewer left to piece together their backgrounds as the conversations unfold. This has a nice levelling effect, all contributors being given equal status. The juxtaposition of Silkin’s words with contemporary shots of housing estates, run-down shopping arcades and underpasses, is drily ironic.
The evaluation follows an arc. First, older residents recall the excitement of moving out from the slums of London’s East End, the novelty of having a bathroom and toilet. The film’s various contributors are enthusiastic about the Modernist architecture. A city-centre block of flats, Brooke House, is described as having been a highly desirable place to live, a source of envy to some. But the tone then starts to shift. The many alleyways, ‘dark corners’, and underpasses are recalled, places where people felt vulnerable. The participants wonder how the architects could ever have thought this would work. While men went out to work, women were often isolated at home. One estate is described as ‘Alcatraz’, a ‘prison for the working class.’ Another contributor says that he remembers the town of his childhood as ‘grey’. Most concur that the planners were out of touch with the needs and aspirations of the people they were designing for.
Some voices suggest that part of the problem lay with the temporary status of the development corporation which built the town. The local authority was expected to maintain and enhance the place once it was built, but did not do so. Over the years Brooke House, for example, became more and more run down, occupied mainly by drug addicts. All agree the town was a ‘tough’ place socially – territorial, ‘hard’. There’s little evidence of a ‘slum spirit’ surviving the transplanting of people.
The arts fare no better. In the early days there was a sense of the town being somewhere people believed in. The old Town Gate Theatre, since replaced, was a focal point for creativity. Punk had a big impact on the local music scene in the mid-1970s, leading to the development of other musical styles, Depeche Mode and Alison Moyet the most famous products of this period. Robert Marlow, interviewed in the film, was part of that scene, as was another contributor, former Vandals member Sue Ryder Paget. Through the 1980s, funding for the arts, and leisure facilities generally, was progressively reduced, part of a broader pattern of change across the country under the Thatcher government. The majority of those interviewed in the film are linked in some way to the arts, so this is an issue of particular significance for them.
From the beginning of the 1980s council-house tenants gained the right to buy their homes at heavily discounted prices. It was an offer too good to refuse for those who could afford it, though, as many in the film testify, it felt like a betrayal of principles and was something people were ashamed of. The demise of some industries led to factory closures in Basildon and rising unemployment. The work that was available was low paid. Faster train connections – originally the town had no station – led to many people travelling into London for work. Public assets were sold and the proceeds taken by the Treasury as national policy. Green spaces started to disappear, flogged off to developers, as Silkin’s vision for the place was dismantled.
Towards the end the film returns to a positive note. Contributors reject the image of Basildon as a dangerous, unpleasant place to live. They point to recent encouraging signs, such as the opening of a new art gallery in the town centre. A local teacher is optimistic, though he also recognises the challenges his students will face. The massive social experiment which was Basildon was ‘better done than not,’ the participants seem to conclude. The film is a kind of eulogy to the New Town — a poem offering no simple answers.
THE NEW TOWN concept was spawned from the ideas of Ebenezer Howard, a social reformer who at the end of the nineteenth century came up with the concept of the garden city – a marrying of city and country. In the 1880s two of the principal topics of public debate were the appalling conditions in urban slums and the plight of the rural poor. British agriculture was in the doldrums, facing fierce competition from North America and Australia, and hampered by a series of poor harvests. Many farms stood idle, land prices were low, and people were migrating to the cities in search of work. Various solutions were advocated, including ‘back to the land’ schemes and urban improvement measures. Many of these proposals were debated in the pages of the Fortnightly Review, which Howard apparently read assiduously.
As a young man Howard emigrated to the USA to try his hand at farming, but finding the going tough he moved to Chicago where he worked as a reporter. The architecture and design of Chicago, and other American cities, made a big impression on him. Back in the UK Howard pieced together a proposal for the creation of new ‘garden cities’, where industry would provide jobs, where the workers would have decent housing, and where good design and plenty of green space would create conditions for a new type of citizen to emerge. Bourneville and Port Sunlight were earlier experiments in this direction, but Howard wanted to create communities not tied to a single employer. He envisaged a network of these garden cities, connected through efficient transport systems, replacing the squalid and dehumanising city slums. His proposals were published in 1898 as To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (reissued in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-morrow).
Howard was no great believer in central government. He envisaged that the building of garden cities would be financed by private capital coming from what today we would call ‘positive investors’ – people looking for both a return on their capital and a social impact. Once the development costs were paid off, revenue from rents would accrue to a trust, accountable to residents, for the ongoing betterment of the town. Howard wanted to put control into the hands of local people. This was the revolution by peaceful means he hoped to engineer.
The creation of Letchworth Garden City began in 1903. But the project was under-capitalised from the start and the town grew slowly. Raising the kind of philanthropic capital Howard had hoped to attract proved challenging and the economic principles set out in his book were never fully implemented. But despite these limitations there was a pioneering spirit among the first residents, who were often caricatured by outsiders as earnest idealists. John Betjeman mocks the place in his poem ‘Huxley Hall’ as a ‘bright, hygienic hell’ — not somewhere for the ordinary ‘fallen’ mortal. Betjeman preferred his ‘lime juice’ with gin in it.
Howard started development of a second garden city at Welwyn in 1920, again using private capital. This second project also grew slowly, and being nearer London it attracted commuters, giving it more of the character of a garden suburb than a self-contained community. In parallel with the practical work of building garden cities, Howard founded the Garden City Association (later to become the Town and Country Planning Association) to advocate his ideas. The association made little headway with the governments of the early decades on the twentieth century. But at the end of WWII, with the major cities damaged by bombing, a massive housing problem facing the country, and a bold new Labour government determined to create a different kind of world, Howard’s ideas found a receptive audience. The result was the centrally directed programme of the post-war New Towns.
THE PARENTS OF Penny Betteridge, who appears in New Town Utopia, were already in Basildon before the New Town arrived. They were ‘plotlanders’, working-class Londoners who had bought a plot on an unserviced site, put up for sale by a local landowner, and had built their own dwelling there. Dozens of these developments popped up in the 1930s, especially in southern England, provoking a predictably snooty response from the local gentry horrified to find the great unwashed blighting the view. These were ramshackle, do-it-yourself communities, originally of holiday homes. Two plotlander settlements – Langdon and Pitsea – were erased by the development of Basildon New Town. But one of the original bungalows, The Haven, survives as a museum.
In 1989 the community in Basildon was involved in the performance of a specially commissioned play by Arnold Wesker, Beorthel’s Hill. The project is remembered in New Town Utopia and the film includes brief clips from the performance. Plotlander families appear in the play, recalling the happy weekend escape from London, the fresh allotment produce, and sense of community. Many held the freehold for their plots, and they received poor compensation when the New Town was built.
Like New Town Utopia, Wesker’s play incorporates many voices and acknowledges the conflicts between interest groups. A narrator figure, the ‘town drunk’, provides a bemused, sometimes angry, commentary on the action. Reflecting on the conflict between the plotlanders and the development corporation he says:
And where do we stand dearly beloved?…Chaotic development could mean character, variety. Planned development could mean dull monotony. Think about it – dearly beloved – for here comes the biggest conflict of them all – the dream versus reality.
Darkness, thunder and lightning follow, and the bungalows of the plotlanders are demolished.
Early on in the play, the narrator says:
I’ve a confession to make – I’m lonely here. There are no – poets here. Oh yes, one or two. There’s always one or two, but mostly only makers of money. If I want to feel alive, emotionally charged, inter-bloody-lectually stimulated, I have to escape to the bleedin’ metropolis.
This sense of loneliness is echoed by another character, Brenda, a young mother who feels isolated in her new council home, far away from her family still living in London.
A powerful image in the play, one recalled in the film, is of a group of children racing to find the end of a rainbow. Towards the end of Act One there is a scene where they run on the spot, in slow motion under strobe lighting – ‘the excitement of “the quest” on their young faces.’
NEW TOWN UTOPIA has a personal resonance for me. I grew up on a council estate in Stevenage, the first of the New Towns and now in the process of becoming even newer. My parents moved to nearby Hitchin in 1970, when I was 14, though I continued to attend school in Stevenage, worked Saturdays in a bookshop there, and had friends in the town. I don’t recall any impressive civic architecture. My memory is of expanses of concrete, and street after street of uniform housing. There was generous provision for cyclists, plenty of parks, and we were on the very edge of the town, with fields a few hundred metres away. It was this which reconciled my mother to moving to Stevenage when my father, just out of the army, secured a job with Hawker Sidley, later part of British Aerospace. My mother had grown up in rural Hampshire, the descendent of generations of agricultural workers, and missed that environment. Later the fields near our house were swallowed by a ring road and more housing development.
Stevenage, like Basildon, has a reputation for toughness, but I don’t remember it being violent. Perhaps it became worse later. What I do remember is the lack of any serious culture. By my late teens I was desperate to escape from the existential wilderness of north Herts. Like many others I fled, never to look back. By the time Thatcher was elected Prime Minister in 1979 I had a degree from Oxford, having benefited from a Grammar School education and a student grant.
In 2012 journalist Gary Younge published a memoir of his own Stevenage childhood in Granta. Younge is of Barbadian descent, though born in Britain. There were few black people in Stevenage, and he always had a sense of being from ‘somewhere else’. But he recognises that his particular story was not that different from those of most New Town residents, regardless of ethnicity. He writes, “During the seventies and eighties being from Stevenage felt as though you weren’t really from anywhere in particular.’
Younge locates the source of this estrangement in the fact that the town was the product of planning, not of organic growth. Though well provisioned, it had no real identity.
So whatever sense of alienation we felt was environmental rather than social and had nothing to do with deprivation. As far as facilities were concerned it was a great place to grow up. It’s just that we had no more reason to be there than anywhere else. The physical space we inhabited was shaped not by family ties, cultural affiliation or group identity but by some random, indifferent and entirely elusive force.
Playwright Vince O’Connell, one of the interviewees in New Town Utopia, echoes this sentiment on his website:
It (Basildon) was a community planned by committee, and a sense of community was very much lacking. 100,000 people dumped out of the inner cities and extended family environments onto a block of concrete in the middle of the Essex countryside. There was nowhere for people to meet. It was like a test tube experiment on a generation of babies — my generation. The smart ones got out.
The recent announcement by the UK government of plans for 14 new ‘garden villages and towns’ is far more modest than the New Towns project, and is aimed at the middle class rather than the urban poor. There is talk of development being ‘locally led’, but it’s effectively another top-down initiative. ‘New communities’ will be created we’re told, with ‘village shops’ and ‘community centres’. Sound familiar? New Town Utopia offers an intelligent antidote to this kind of corporate rhetoric.
Simon Collings lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including Stride, Journal of Poetics Research, Tears in the Fence, Ink Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN Review. Out West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik (2017), and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, has just been released by The Red Ceilings Press.