New towns like Basildon started as a utopian dream. So what happened?

Basildown town centre. Image: John Armagh/Wikimedia Commons.

“Basildon is complicated,” wrote Norman Scarfe in the 1968 Shell Guide To Essex. He was right – and that’s the reason I chose the town as the subject of my upcoming documentary New Town Utopia. It’s a film of memory, poetry, music and architecture that explores a complex social history and the power of art.

In 1946, Lewis Silkin, the Minister for Town & Country Planning, delivered a lyrical and impassioned speech to parliament. In the midst the Labour government’s radical post-war policy drive, he announced a plan to build ten ‘new towns’ across the UK.

The plan addressed the major issues facing the cities of Britain – includeng the devastating impact of WW2 bombing and atrocious living and working conditions – by relocating families to new, purpose-built towns. Silkin’s speech expressed a desire to create “a new type of citizen” who would develop through living in the new town “a sense of beauty, culture and civic pride”. He evoked Thomas More’s Utopia in the scale of his ambition. 

The new towns and their early residents were invested with these post-war hopes and aspirations. Seventy years on, Basildon, of this first wave of new towns, is a challenging place that’s been through difficult times. According to recent research carried out by its council, Basildon houses one quarter of the most deprived areas in Essex. The gap between rich and poor is huge – it’s the 6th most unequal city in the country – and 29 per cent of workers in Basildon earn less than the living wage.  Art and culture seem to be a distant memory. Its negative reputation precedes it, having cemented a place in popular culture as a paradigm of a shit British town.

So what happened?

I grew up in the area in the ‘80s, as Basildon’s reputation from the outside seemed to nosedive. At a national level names began to stick – Basildon Man, Chav, Essex Girl – labels that were sometimes ball and chain, sometimes badge of honour.

Unsurprisingly these were not coined by the locals. A Sunday Telegraph article first Coined the name “Essex Man”, defining him as “young, industrious, mildly brutish and culturally barren”. It was patronising, superior and fully intended to reinforce negative perceptions of successful working class people.

Basildon has long been a political bellwether – it voted for Thatcher, Blair and then Brexit. With this in mind, I hope that the film, through its focus on one town, reveals something about the state of modern Britain. In the ‘70s the town began a shift from being a socialist stronghold dubbed “Little Moscow on the Thames” to a Tory stronghold within ten years.  This was destabilising change, with Thatcher’s ‘right-to-buy policy at its heart, as the individual trumped community in a town built upon communitarian values.

On top of this, the adversarial nature of British politics led to changing parties in power, nationally and locally, pulling the town in different directions, at a time when it was still growing. As Vin Harrop, a champion for the arts in Basildon, once told me, “Democracy does not build new towns.” 

Somehow, somewhere, over time, Silkin’s aesthetic and civic dream had faltered. In New Town Utopia I try to understand why and how this happened, and what this means for Basildon, its people and the rest of the UK. In doing this the film touches on some key challenges facing British society, including the housing crisis, the sucker punch of globalisation and new technology on our high streets, and the continued demonisation of people from working class backgrounds.

Many or the people I met were artists, poets and musicians whose creative pursuits occurred either in spite of the town, or as a reaction against it. They were individuals with imagination, talent, fight and a shared belief in the positive power of self expression.

These characters included Steve Waters, the puppeteer behind Old Man Stan, a puppet pensioner activist who gained a cult following on YouTube; folk and blues musician the ‘Bard of Basildon’ Phil Burdett; poets Ralph Dartford and Ölmo Lazarus; and musicians such as Sue Paget and Rob Marlow from the ‘80s electro scene that spawned bands like Yazoo and Depeche Mode.

Their thoughts, work and memories are the narrative engine of the film of New Town Utopia. One particular line from Silkin’s speech lingered: “A sense of beauty, culture and civic pride.”

This aesthetic utopian dream felt so alien to the mood of the town – a mood that I gauged through time spent with many Basildon people during my research. It’s true that many of the first generation ‘pioneers’ maintained pride about the town, what it represented, and the shelter it provided; but I found that many from later generations were desperate to escape, and seemed to blame the town itself for many of their own personal ills.

Camus considered Utopia to be “in contradiction to reality”. Basildon is not Utopia – but then again, where is?

Christopher Ian Smith is director of New Town Utopia.


Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.

…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.