Reflections on Washington New Town, 50 years on

Graeme Bell OBE is a chartered surveyor and planner who worked at Washington Development Corporation 1967/68. He was part of the planning team that delivered Washington New Town, the North East community where George Clarke was raised.

Our brief for Washington New Town was to create ‘a town in which people want to live’. So simple, so complex. We started with the consultant’s masterplan which envisaged a place where the car was king. South of Newcastle and west of Sunderland a grid of dual carriageways with grade-separated junctions was to criss-cross the countryside to enable the 50,000 planned population to travel between home, work and play. This was to be Los Angeles-on-the-Wear!

A fore-runner of the design for Milton Keynes, the idea was that by taking the traffic out of the built-up areas, car-free spaces could be created where families and particularly children could safely walk to school, play and socialise. Within the grid were also to be factories and offices-jobs that were crucial to the success of Washington-and shops and parks, so residents wouldn’t need to travel great distances to live a good life.

It was our job as professionals to interpret the strategy and make it work on the ground. Most council offices of that time were strict hierarchies where arcane practices often prevailed. By contrast, we were all young. Most under 30 and only the chiefs over 40 which made for a terrific can-do spirit. Imagine, we were commissioned to build a town! With our offices ‘on site’, we were accessible to our tenants so that when problems arose (as they always do) we were on hand to help. We were a learning organisation and subsequent phases were the better for the direct customer feedback.

Huge efforts were made to make the town attractive, after all, we wanted people to come and live there and businesses to invest! There was no super-imposition of standard house types. No ‘one size fits all’. The teams of architects responsible for designing each ‘village’ had a friendly rivalry and designers would walk the site, sketch layouts, highlight good views and incorporate trees and hedges in green space. House design and materials were bespoke to a site and each area made to look different to create a sense of place and local distinctiveness. The planting has now matured and looks magnificent.

Homes were built to Parker Morris standard, many to even better space standards, yet all within the housing cost yardstick. These generous (by today’s metric) standards enabled families to grow without the need to move, helping communities to remain settled. And ‘Corporation’ homes came complete with bathrooms, fitted kitchens and central heating. Residents appreciated such features, as many people in those days, particularly those with limited means could only dream of such a place to live.

Having learnt how to design and build great places to live we seem to have lost the plot. A housing crisis has been brought on because of the failure of successive governments to resource the building of replacements to those sold off and new ones to meet the growing housing need. The UK now builds the smallest homes in Europe, with squalid conversions from offices to residential without the need for planning permission and no attention paid to where people might work, send their children to schools or let them play. We are building the slums of the future. Build decent homes for rent and not only will people look after them but having a roof over their head will help stabilise relationships and improve health. It is cost effective for the public purse.

HM Treasury has made squillions over decades from the new towns programme which has been a great economic success. Large projects and continuous build make for critical mass and deliver economies of scale. If you want poor value for money, build penny packet schemes dotted around. Too often that’s the response. New towns, garden villages, garden cities, they all need to be part of the solution to solve the housing crisis. We have the skills to design and build these great places. The question is do today’s politicians have the long term thinking and the will to designate sites for strategic development?

I’m proud to have played a small part in making Washington the success it is. Visiting the town with George brought back happy memories and the satisfaction of knowing that we did indeed create ‘a town in which people want to live’.