They never take the long-term view needed to create places which stand the test of time

Robert Adam

The recent scrap between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives about the “secret” new town report should be a warning to us all. Don’t trust politicians with big ideas about new towns – big planning projects just take too long.

Few parties stay in power for more than two five-year terms and few ministers stay in their ministries for more than eighteen months. Major urban design projects take as much as a decade to get going and decades to complete.  By that time, the minister with the big idea will have long since moved on and no government is going to win votes with muddy fields and promised communities. Any suggestion that these places will be any kind of short-term fix for our long-term structural housing shortage is a fantasy.

We only need to look at the fate of John Prescott’s eco towns. With a great green fanfare in 2007, 10 were planned. But only four were eventually approved and a new government turned over all but one to normal development in 2011. The only survivor, North West Bicester, is due to start on site this year delivering a pathetic total of fewer than 400 homes by 2017.

A promised “entirely new way of looking at the mass housing market” has been described by Cabe as showing “little deviation from the standard suburban housing model”.  In the meantime regulation has made its crusading green ambitions look quite ordinary.

Good urban design is for visionaries, politics is for opportunists

Completed projects haven’t fared too well. Milton Keynes was planned in the sixties as a new city to siphon residents out of London. Famous for its unnavigable anonymous roundabouts, the American grid has the character of a huge post-war bypass built before there was anything to pass by. It became a playground for establishment architects who specialised in creating urban deserts just like every other place they got their hands on. Offices got grants to move there and early residents had to be paid to come, setting a fashion for celebration parties when the time came to move out without a payback. Compared with horrors like Cumbernauld, Milton Keynes is today counted a success but, in spite of retrofitting, is still a throwback to an un-loved age of urban design.

Now both sides of the coalition have pinned their masts to century-old idea of the Garden City. Quite why is a mystery. Perhaps the idea of a garden as a new city makes a good sound bite. Perhaps it’s a way of disowning unpopular regulations that had made urban peripheries denser than their town centres. Perhaps it’s just a way of avoiding censure for a return to front-garden suburbia. For whatever reason, politicians have put new garden cities in the news.

The original Garden Cities, Letchworth and Welwyn, were nothing to do with government then or now. They were created by visionary reformers working against the establishment view. They stuck to their guns through shaky beginnings and perilous finance to create something that stood the test of time. Anything politicians suggest will kow-tow to the urban-design, architectural and or other establishment around. The mere hint of trouble and they’ll run for cover. The only reason a project will keep going is that the juggernaut is unstoppable, by which time everyone knows the whole thing was a mistake.

Good urban design is for visionaries, politics is for opportunists. Where are the visionaries today? Like it or not, the Prince of Wales is one of the few who puts his money where his mouth is and takes the long-term view. Will Poundbury be admired in a century? We won’t know until then.

Robert Adam is a director of ADAM Architecture