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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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.