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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Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”