In 1948, the UK government produced a propaganda cartoon to sell New Towns, and it is mindblowing

A screenshot from Charley in New Town. Image: Central Office of Information/Public domain.

In the late 1940s, the Labour government headed by Clement Attleee set about remaking Britain. It created the modern welfare state. It created the National Health Service. Less famously, except perhaps among readers of CityMetric, it also passed the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act, which placed limits on the growth of large cities in the form of green belts, and which created “development corporations” empowered to build new towns.

As well as passing all these reforms, of course, the government had to explain them. Enter the Central Office of Information and its cheeky, animated chappie Charley. From the BFI:

At the behest of then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Cripps, the animation studio, Halas & Batchelor, produced a series of eight lighthearted films featuring Charley, a kind of ‘everyman’ cartoon character, to convey information about the various reforms – Charley’s March of Time (1948), explaining the purpose of the National Insurance Acts of July 1948 or Your Very Good Health (1948), illustrating how the National Health Service operates.

What strikes me about that is quite how existential those titles are. “Your Very Good Health” is a film about not being in very good health. “Charley’s March of Time” is a film about the fact that you too will get old and there is nothing you can do about it, it comes to us all, you laugh now but one day you too will have back pain and hate modern music and hang on what did I come in here for.

Anyway. The reason I mention all this is that, in one of his other adventures, Charley also moved to a new town. Here’s the film’s title card:

They thought long and hard about that name, clearly.

The film begins with Charley cycling to work, cheerfully saying “Hullo!” to passers-by. This being 1947, you can definitely tell that he spells “Hullo!” with a U”.

At 00:44 he gets overtaken by a bald old bloke, which is a bit embarrassing.

Then in direct contravention of decent road safety, he starts chatting direct to camera, totally ignoring the road ahead. Charley is that cyclist the Daily Mail is always whining about. Charley is a bloody menace.

“My this is a grand way to start the day. Bit different from what it used to be - I can tell ya!”

Then we get a flashback to What It Used To Be – specifically, to before the new town came along – and things get a bit frightening. Suddenly, poor old Charley is on a bus, looking uncomfortably like the old bloke has just put his hand on his leg:

Meanwhile, the bus is full of sinister, shadowy figures, of the sort that one imagines inhabiting Soviet information films of the same era:

“Took a bloke a good hour to get to work. As for the view – if you could call it a view!”

You could not call it a view.

It goes on in this vein for a bit (“You didn’t ask when you were getting near the town. You knew without looking... Not even a blimin’ place for the kids to play, poor little blighters…”) before we get to the most disturbing moment of the film. That’s when it accidentally makes the population of Britain’s towns – the people it is, presumably, intended to appeal to – look like a stream of cockroaches or something similarly verminous, flowing off the bus...

...and into the factories:

Charley, you will notice, is the only figure in this crowd given any individuality. The others are just an undistinguished lumpen mass of humanity.

Anyway, he’s in his drab little office, thinking about this, when he has a brainwave:

At that point, he and a dozen overs spontaneously develop the ability to fly, crash upwards through their roofs, and all nip off to a town planning meeting.

I absolutely promise I am not making this up.

There we are quickly appraised of the problem:

“Our town has turned into a monster! The surrounding country is being eaten up, it by bit!”

At this point, the film shows the town spreading, like a stain.

But it rapidly becomes clear that densification is easier said than done:

“If we’re to make room for everyone without spreading out, we must build upwards!”

“Don’t be silly, I won’t get a pram up there!”

“What about my garden!”

Despite these teething problems, they come up with a solution surprisingly quickly: a new town out beyond the green belt. It will have separate industrial and residential areas, linked by “byways and cycle tracks”, and with the factories downwind to ensure smoke doesn’t get into people’s homes. We are promised a nursery school within 400 yards of every home (ambitious), “good shops, a posh theatre, cinemas, a concert hall and a civic centre”…

But it’s all deeply surreal. We see Charley laying a carpet, which turns out to be a flower bed, and sprouts flowers the minute he gives it any water. At one point, the one bloke who turns up at every meeting who is mostly concerned about pubs demands a pub. He tries to put one down on the town, and all the other buildings freak out and run away from it.

You can tell the pub is a pub because it wobbles like a drunk, and the music suddenly goes a bit trombone-y. Look, it’s in the road and wobbling:

On the whole though everyone is pleased with their new town:

The line that vexes me most, though, is this:

“Flats for people who want ‘em, hostels where the young people could get together, and bungalows for the elderly...”

Wait... “Where the young people could get together”? Get together how, exactly? Was this a thing in 1948? Did people go stay in hostels so they could... get together? What?

“I’m telling ya,” Charley says at the end, “It works out fine. Just you try it.”

Some people did try it, in the end. The result was Stevenage.

Anyway, If you want to watch the whole thing – and I quite genuinely suggest you do – it’s here.

And if you have any suggestions for animated characters that might help us solve the current housing crisis, please do feel free to write in.

Thanks to Paul Swinney of the Centre for Cities for alerting me to this work of post-war genius.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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There isn’t a single national housing market – so we need multiple models of local regeneration, too

Rochdale. Image: Getty.

This week’s budget comes ten years after the 2007 financial crisis. The trigger for that crisis was a loss in confidence in mortgages for homes, with banks suddenly recognising the vulnerability of loans on their books.

In the last ten years, the UK’s cities and regions have followed very different paths. This week’s focus on housing affordability is welcome, but it will be a challenge for any chancellor in the coming decade to use national policy to help towns up and down the country. Local housing markets differ drastically. The new crop of city-region mayors are recognising this, as rents in parts of south Greater Manchester are on average double the rents in parts of the north of the city-region.

When it comes to buying a home, politicians are increasingly articulate about the consequences of inequity in our housing system. But we must recognise that, for 9m citizens who live in social rented homes, the prospects of improvements to properties, common areas and grounds are usually tied to wider projects to create new housing within existing estates – sometimes involving complete demolition and rebuilding.

While the Conservative governments of the 1980s shrank the scale of direct investment in building homes for social rent, the Labour governments from the late 1990s used a sustained period of growth in property prices to champion a new model: affordable housing was to be paid for by policies which required contributions to go to housing associations. Effectively, the funding for new affordable housing and refurbished social homes was part of the profit from market housing built next door, on the same turf; a large programme of government investment also brought millions of social rented homes up to a decent standard.

This cross-subsidy model was always flawed. Most fundamentally, it relies on rising property prices – which it is neither desirable nor realistic to expect. Building more social homes became dependent on ratcheting up prices and securing more private profit. In London, we are starting to see that model come apart at the seams.

The inevitable result has been that with long social housing waiting lists and rocketing market prices, new developments have too often ended up as segregated local communities, home to both the richest and the poorest. They may live side by side, but as the RSA concluded earlier this year, investment in the social infrastructure and community development to help neighbours integrate has too often been lacking. Several regeneration schemes that soldiered on through the downturn did so by building more private homes and fewer social rented homes than existed before, or by taking advantage of more generous legal definitions of what counts as ‘affordable housing’ – or both.

A rough guide to how house prices have changed since 2007: each hexagon is a constituency. You can explore the full version at ODI Leeds.

In most of England’s cities, the story does not appear to be heading for the dramatic crescendo high court showdowns that now haunt both developers and communities in the capital. In fact, for most social housing estates in most places outside London, national government should recognise that the whole story looks very different. As austerity measures have tightened budgets for providers of social housing, budgets to refurbish ageing homes are under pressure to do more with less. With an uncertain outlook for property prices, as well as ample brownfield and greenfield housing sites, estates in many northern towns are not a priority for private investors in property development.

In many towns and cities – across the North and the Midlands – the challenges of a poor quality built environment, a poor choice of homes in the local are, and entrenched deprivation remain serious. The recent reclassification of housing associations into the private sector doesn’t make investing in repairs and renewal more profitable. The bespoke ‘housing deals’ announced show that the government is willing to invest directly – but there is anxiety that devolution to combined authorities simply creates another organisation that needs to prioritise building new homes over the renewal of existing neighbourhoods.


In Rochdale, the RSA is working with local mutual housing society RBH to plan for physical, social and economic regeneration at the same time. Importantly, we are making the case – with input from the community of residents themselves – that significant investment in improving employment for residents might itself save the public purse enough money to pay for itself in the long-run.

Lots of services are already effective at helping people find work and start a job. But for those for whom job searching feels out of reach, we are learning from Rochdale Borough Council’s pioneering work that the journey to work can only come from trusting, personal relationships. We hear time and again about the demoralising effect of benefits sanctions and penalties. We are considering an alternative provision of welfare payments, as are other authorities in the UK. Importantly, residents are identifying clearly the particular new challenges created by new forms of modern employment and the type of work available locally: this is a town where JD Sports is hiring 1000 additional workers to fulfil Black Friday orders at its warehouse.

In neighbourhoods like Rochdale’s town centre, both national government and the new devolved city-region administration are considering an approach to neighbourhood change that works for both people and place together. Redevelopment of the built environment is recognised as just one aspect of improving people’s quality of life. Residents themselves will tell you quality jobs and community facilities are their priority. But without a wider range of housing choices and neighbourhood investment locally, success in supporting residents to achieve rising incomes will mean many residents are likely to leave places like Rochdale town centre altogether.

Meaningful change happen won’t happen without patience and trust: between agencies in the public sector, between tenants and landlords, and between citizens and the leaders of cities. This applies as much to our planning system as it does to our complex skills and employment system.

Trust builds slowly and erodes quickly. As with our other projects at the RSA, we are convinced that listening and engaging citizens will improve policy-making. Most of those involved in regeneration know this better than anyone. But at the national level we need to recognise that, just as the labour market and the housing market vary dramatically from place to place, there isn’t a single national story which represents how communities feel about local regeneration.

Jonathan Schifferes is interim Director, Public Services and Communities, at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).