Washington New Town

The Labour government of 1948 founded the Welfare State, a new political philosophy which held that the state should look after every individual in society. As part of this ethos, the government devised the New Town programme.

The Labour government of 1948 founded the Welfare State, a new political philosophy which held that the state should look after every individual in society. As part of this ethos, the government devised the New Town programme. The term ‘new town’ refers to the towns developed under the New Towns Act of 1946. They were built to house the large numbers of people who had lost homes during the War.

The first New Town was Stevenage in Hertfordshire (1946). New Towns were meant to promote economic growth in areas that had suffered due to the decline of industries like coal-mining and shipbuilding, which had created mass unemployment. Of course, the traditional industries of the North East were in terminal decline by then, so two major New Towns were built in the North East: Peterlee and Washington.

Washington New Town was built between 1967 and 1980. It is organised into separate villages, each with a different character. Some of the buildings are barn-like and built of red brick in a folksy, neo-vernacular style. One of the estates looks like a Mediterranean hill-side village, with whitewashed walls and red tile roofs.

Washington was carried out by a kind of body known as a quasi-unelected government organisation, or quango. It was appointed by the government, meaning that the public had no say in who was designing their homes. This demonstrates an arrogance and a sense of ‘we know best’ which is always a problem when educated, middle class architects and planners design an environment for the working class.

Like most New Towns, the purpose of Washington was not socially reformist but economic in nature – it was essentially a workers’ village that was meant to benefit the national economy. The only social problem that Washington was intended to solve was male unemployment, which was seen as a crisis in both the local and national economies. The plan included large industrial areas to provide jobs for male workers. The only provision for female employment were the local shops. It was assumed that women would only work close to the home, on a part-time basis and still look after children. This reveals a patriarchal assumption that a woman’s place is in the home.

Washington was created for a car-owning population. It consists of a series of residential islands, surrounded by road networks. The road network dictated land-use patterns. The Plan tries to justify these measures by referring to projections of future levels of car-ownership. But these were overly optimistic: the Plan predicted that there would be 91% ownership by 1981, but the actual figure was considerably lower. Pedestrian routes consist of underpasses and bridges like this one. There is also a convoluted pavement system that unnecessarily extends journeys made on foot.

Pedestrians are forced to negotiate their way through the road system. It is clear that car-users have priority. The paths often incorporate steps, which are inconvenient for people with pushchairs, as well as wheelchair-users. The walkways are highly impractical: raised bridges obstruct people with children or shopping. Underpasses are dangerous at night. The Plan did not recognise that roads create both physical and psychological barriers.

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Francois Hagnere
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Posted on Apr 22, 2010