A new archive film compilation takes a look at the UK’s controversial postwar towns

“People sometimes say to me, ‘You must get a terrific kick out of having been responsible for a huge thing like a new town,’” said Sir Frederick Gibberd in an interview in 1982, 35 years after he created the new town of Harlow. “Well, I get a lot of misery out of it, in fact. I go around and think, ‘My god, that’s unbelievably bad, and it could have been so good.’”

If that was what the designer thought, imagine how everyone else who moved to Harlow felt. The interview comes in a short film at the end of New Towns, Our Towns, a new compilation of archive films from the Independent Cinema Office chronicling Britain’s pioneering postwar new town movement – and our ongoing love-hate relationship with it. Paternalistic social engineering or make-Britain-great-again utopianism? Textbook example of the failures of macro modernism, or the type of bold, ambitious government initiative we need more of? 

A modernist picture postcard: Basildon in the film New Town Utopia.
A modernist picture postcard: Basildon in the film New Town Utopia. © Verve Pictures

New Towns, Our Town1

The New Towns movement is one of the South East’s most significant shared stories, with a legacy and an impact that are still felt and discussed today. In the 73 years since the first New Towns Act was passed by the post-war government, the towns it created have been both praised as modern-day utopias and dismissed as failed social experiments.

Featuring glimpses of the original rural landscapes before they were transformed for new arrivals from a London devastated by the Blitz, this collection of rare archive films sheds light on the experiences of the Towns’ early pioneers as well as following generations. Promotional films by the Development Corporations that oversaw construction, television documentaries from the UK and beyond, as well as amateur footage from residents themselves, reveal how these ground-breaking towns have been continually reshaped in and by the public imagination.

With the UK’s ongoing housing crisis, the lessons of the New Towns are once again at the forefront of social and political debates and this valuable programme gives audiences a chance to reflect on their legacy; distinguishing the long-perpetuated myths of bleak architecture and endless roundabouts from the reality of the people and communities who call them home.

Part of Film Hub South East’s New Towns, Our Town – Stories on Screen, an innovative film project seeking to increase the visibility of the New Town movement and to celebrate the unique social history and heritage of these pioneering towns.