25 DECEMBER 1964, Page 4

New Towns and Land

SOME interesting results of the British character on the British townscape are brought out in Robin Best's Land for the New Towns (pub- lished by the Town and Country Planning Asso- ciation at 7s. 6d.). Deep in the character of the Briton is the ideal of the country gentleman and the demand for the small house with a garden or a home in the country.

But, as Dr. Best shows, when the Briton moves to the new towns he does not get the broad acres and low residential density that is popularly supposed to characterise them. Respect for the countryman's way of life leads the authorities in Britain to take as little agricultural land as possible when choosing a new-town site. Some promising sites have been rejected entirely on agricultural grounds. Other sites (e.g. 'HarloW, Bracknell, Corby and Hemel Hempstead) that were designated as new towns were drastically cut in size to minimise the taking of fertile land. At the same time a desire to move people from congested old towns to fresh homes results in pressure to find further room for them in these reduced new towns.

The result, we are told, has been something far less spacious than the standards recom- mended by the Reith Report on New Towns of 1946. The Reith Report recommended an overall density of twelve houses per acre, or eighty- three acres for every 1,000 persons. When the plans for live new towns near London were drawn up fifteen years ago their proposed resi- dential density was seen to have been increased to an average of seventy-two acres per 1,000 persons. Today, owing to decisions to fit in still more people, in those same towns the proposed density has gone up to fifty-nine acres per 1,000. For Britain's new towns as a whole the density is fifty-five acres per 1,000 persons.

This tightening-up of density seems to be con- tinuing. The recent Scottish new town of Cumber- nauld has an overall density of only thirty-seven acres per 1,000 persons, while the density of Cramlington (largely a private-enterprise new town in the north-east) is forty-five acres per 1,000: these two towns were planned as recently at 1960-61.

There are some surprising variations. In the south the new towns are more 'open' than those of the north of England and of Scotland. But the fact remains that when compared with a sample of existing towns, the new towns of England and Wales were found to have much the same density as other towns of their size.

Only the big county boroughs had a higher density, while the small country towns were strikingly more 'open' in pattern than the new towns. And, as the author points out, the big towns are reducing their density to make room for schools, car parks, open spaces, etc. He ex- presses concern that the new towns, already areas of medium or high density, may be lower- ing standards by moving in the opposite direction.

The loss of agricultural land has long been a subject for discussion and controversy. For a decade Dr. Best has been extending the boun- daries of knowledge and reducing the area of controversy on this subject. He now shows that the part played by the new towns is small. In England and Wales he estimates that they account for only about 4 per cent of the total loss of farmland to urban development. He also concludes that, once land is taken over, new towns exert little economic pull on the pattern of surrounding farming.