The decision to expand Heathrow is a betrayal of the Attlee government's New Towns programme

Gatwick, which lies besides the New Town of Crawley. Image: Getty.

We have a housing crisis in 2016: that much is relatively uncontroversial. But compared to the housing crisis in 1946, it’s fairly small time.

In the years after the Second World War, Britain, and particularly London, faced up to the reality of the destruction wrought by the German Luftwaffe. One in three homes had been damaged during the war, with 250,000 left uninhabitable and a further 250,000 severely damaged.

Exacerbating this was the fact that, before the war, the government had been building an unprecedented 350,000 new houses per year – a supply that was cut off by the outbreak of war.

In 1945, the government estimated that, to afford separate houses to each family requesting one, some 750,000 houses would need to be built. Over the next few years, Britain’s government would undertake the most aggressive, ambitious house-building programme of modern times.

Why is this relevant in 2016? The long-awaited verdict on airport expansion has been delivered and awarded a third runway to Heathrow. Alongside HS2, this will form the most ambitious infrastructure project of the next two decades, creating, in its wake, jobs, housing, and civic construction.

It is perhaps unsurprising, given the coagulation of air industry interests in the Heathrow project, that the West London site has been selected – but it risks further disavowing the housing projects set in motion by the Attlee government of 1946.

Facing up to the reality of overspill slum dwellings in London, the Labour government of 1946 – coordinated by Nye Bevan, the minister of health with responsibility for housing – put in place the legislation to create a series of new towns, predominantly in satellite positions around London. Seven decades later, these towns are busy but also much-maligned. Despite being inextricably linked to the post-war philosophy, these towns took decades to build and populate; by that time, public opinion had turned against them, as costs rose and fashions changed. A political football, kicked from Attlee’s Labour government back to the Tories, and then back to Labour in 1964, nobody wanted to claim ownership of the project.

And now, Theresa May, the 14th different prime minister since the creation of the New Towns, has foregone her responsibility to them. For all the talk of environmental and noise issues, and resident disapproval, the expansion of an airport brings with it security and prosperity – it is fundamentally a good thing for any community. Heathrow expansion privileges West London suburbs, particularly Hounslow, and the town of Slough (not a New Town, though it is often mistaken for one due to its unfortunate architecture), where industry is already due to be consolidated by the arrival of HS2. That’s without mentioning that Heathrow is already the busiest airport in Europe and 6th busiest in the world. Further development of Heathrow risks over-centralising London’s aviation industry on a single site – jeopardising the success of a housing project that’s been 70 years in the making.


The problem of Crawley

The New Towns Act was not just designed to draw residents out of London, but also jobs. The expansion of Gatwick after the Second World War provided an industrial hub for the South-East that facilitated a decentralisation of housing development.

Without that concurrent development, neither the business-oriented New Town of Crawley or the cultural capital of Brighton would’ve been able to thrive as they have done. The Attlee government’s strategy was to push jobs out of the London metropolis, into areas where cost-effective housing could be built; by putting all our eggs into the Heathrow basket, we are disadvantaging a precarious situation in the South-East.

Much has been made of the employment health of the areas surrounding Gatwick, but the reality is that they are highly dependent on the airport. Companies such as Thales, Virgin and Novo Nordisk are headquartered in the area due to its transport links. The imbalance that will be created in the capacity of Heathrow and Gatwick will not simply create jobs in Berkshire, it will take jobs away from Sussex.

If the New Towns Act were being written now, it would share many of the philosophies of the Northern Powerhouse, albeit with more socialist ideology. Since expansion of Manchester airport was not viable under the proposals offered to the 2012 Airport Commission, many held Heathrow up as the “rest of the UK” option, apparently under the fallacious impression that Gatwick is somehow hemmed in by London.

It’s not: Gatwick is better supplied by rail from major London hubs like Victoria, Euston, London Bridge, and Liverpool Street, and whilst only served by the M23, that road is less busy than the nightmarish M25/M3/ M40 axis that serves Heathrow. More to the point, both Gatwick and Heathrow fall in the South-East region, which has the lowest unemployment rate in the country. We must understand and accept that this decision was, in its essence, about how best to distribute the inherent London privilege.

Decentralisation of industry was written into the founding documents of the New Towns, but with the government’s expansion of Heathrow we are creating an homogenous and insuperable air monolith. Travel is one of our most important industries, even in this post-Brexit world. And putting the arguments for cost and construction aside, the government has a responsibility to follow through on the promises of a reconstruction programme started in our country’s darkest hour and which is still thriving in the murky twilight of today.

In his final report outlining the project before it went to parliament, Lord Reith called the New Towns “an essay in civilization”. That essay is being unwritten, and it is those in need of jobs and housing who will lose out.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.