Runcorn and Skelmersdale: Cities Designed for 1994

(The British New Towns movement, begun by the Labour Government after World War II, now includes some twenty-two cities in Wales, Scotland, and England. The success or failure of this movement is significant for the United States because America and England share many of the same urban problems--congestion, segregation, and rundown housing. Only a few private corporations have attempted pre-preplanned cities in the United States. If the English new towns are successful, the U.S. Government might undertake a comprehensive program of such towns.

The following article is a close-up view of two British new towns just now being consrtucted. The author worked in these two towns this summer on a grant from the International Comparative Culture Study Program financed by Ford Foundation.)

To the north and south of Liverpool, the English Government is building preplanned cities. These cities are intended to relieve the acute housing shortage in Liverpool and rejuvenate the surrounding depressed areas.

Skelmersdale--called Skelm--is the new town to the north. Skelm used to be a mining village. Small huts dot the side streets, soot stains mar the windows, and houses tip at crazy angles because of the mines below. Since World War II, the mines have been going out of business one-by-one. Unemployment has soared and wages fallen.

Skelm's poverty is reflected in its flat, treeless landscape so characteristic of Lancashire. The air is heavy with dust and the northern wind is harsh. The town's only landmark is the beacon on one of the few hills at the city limits. Visitors are always taken to the beacon to see the fine farmlands to the south and west, the motorway to the east, and the decaying city of Wigan to the north. There is no exit or entrance to the motorway at Skelmersdale.

Runcorn, the site of the new town to the south, is wealthier than Skelm. It has a fairly prosperous business district, a luxurious park surrounding the town hall, and the huge factories of the Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI).

Elfleda's Castle

In contrast to Skelm's flat terrain, Runcorn's landscape is hilly and varied. The Manchester ship canal runs deep nearby with ocean liners and oil tankers: the Bridgewater Canal rolls slowly through the city with motorboats and home-made craft. Runcorn's famous landmark is the castle of King Alfred's daughter, Elfleda, that now looks out upon the rich Cheshire farms to the south and the Liverpool-Runcorn Bridge to the north.

Within the last few years, an architectural revolution has been transforming Skelm and Runcorn. In Skelm, Sir Hugh Wilson designed a compact, low-rise city resembling a collection of garden apartments. The city will culminate in a two-tier center, according to Wilson's plan. A resident can walk almost any place in town in ten minutes. But a two center specialist took this general conception and went wild. He thought up a town center--with shops, community halls, and recreational facilities--that has a roof hung on girders, like a suspension bridge. Since the walls do not hold up anything, they can be moved around. A pub can become a gym and a store can be turned into a concert hall--just by rearranging the walls.

Professor Arthur Ling conceived the layout for the new Runcorn as a figure eight with the town center at the intersection. The town is broken by parks into distinct neighborhoods which are connected by a rapid transit of minibuses.


While the ideas of Wilson and Ling may seem far-fetched, they are actually part of a coherent concept of what urban life should be. Both towns seek to keep down the number of autos--Runcorn through its minibuses; Skelmersdale by pedestrian ways through the compact city. Both towns separate industry from housing, but keep jobs within ten minutes of home.

The two cities are designed to eliminate "suburban sprawl" which threatens to gobble up too much of the limited English farm acreage. New town homes are built in highdensity clusters. Parklands are placed between neighborhoods or on the outskirts of town.

But the cluster neighborhoods are to be aesthetically pleasing. All wires are underground. One large television aerial serves a nieghborhood. Factories must take measures against air pollution.

Finally, Skelm and Runcorn are to be socially balanced communities. People from different income groups are supposed to live side-by-side. A variety of industry will be encouraged to create a broad spectrum of working class types. Several housing clusters will share the same schools and community centers.

The wild architectural ideas and utopian town concept have not yet been realized. When Skelm submitted for approval its two-tier town center with suspended roof, the Government was afraid it would not work. It hired a structural engineer to see if the center would really stand. After months, no decision has been reached. In Runcorn, a separate road system for the minibus proved too expensive so the buses will have to run partly on regular streets.

Skelm new town, begun in 1962, now has a population of 4000 in the midst of the old town of 6000. Runcorn, started two years after Skelm, has added only one hundred new town families to its original 25,000 population. According to the Government plans, both new towns will reach the 100,000 mark within the next twenty years.

So Skelm and Runcorn are hardly begun. But already they have had to face a series of economic, political, and social problems. For example, Skelm attracted industry too rapidly, Runcorn too slowly. The Government pays 65 per cent of a company's factory costs and 45 per cent of its machinery costs as an incentive to move into a new town. In 1962-63, this subsidy, plus energetic recruiting by Skelm, attracted so many factories so quickly that a housing shortage resulted. In Runcorn, two years later, Wilson's restrictive economic policy so discouraged industrial expansion that the new town could not bring in a single large firm.

Corporation vs. Council

Skelm and Runcorn faced political difficulties arising out of the dual authority in the town. The national Government had formed a corpora- tion over each new town to draw up its master plan, provide utilities, and build factories and housing. The local government--the Urban District Council--was still largely in charge of providing playgrounds, community centers, schools, police protection, and fire service. The corporation was allowed to spend only fourteen dollars per person on these services.

In Skelm, the corporation ordered the consolidation of Skelmersdale and Upholland Urban Districts--with farflung repercussions. The Urban Councils of the two districts fought for two years about the name for the new superdistrict. They finally arrived at the brilliant compromise name of Skelmersdale-with-Upholland, over strong opposition from a faction which favored Upholland-with-Skelmersdale.

In Runcorn, the Urban District Council had invested a lot of money in the old town center, and resented the corporation's decision to build a new shopping complex in another place. The Council hired its own group of architects, engineers, and planners to draw up an alternate plan for the new town. Their plan just happened to place the new shopping complex smack in the old town center. The Minister of Housing and Local Government had to be called in to resolve the debate--in favor of the corporation.

Into the midst of these governmental and economic problems came the new town residents, mostly workingclass people from Liverpool. There are enough new towners in Skelmersdale now so that they have begun to fight for their interests. The new towners were delighted with their bright, clean homes--for the first half year. Housewives were ecstatic about the spaciousness of the houses. Husbands finally had their own gardens. Then they began to see the problems in their new environment.

They were rejected by Old Skelmers who thought all Liverpudians were loud, dirty, and heavy-drinking. (Indeed, on Orange Wednesday early in July, the Catholics and Protestants in Liverpool throw bricks at each other.) When new towners tried to run for office, they ran up against a strong parochialism. One new resident explained, "I went canvassing voters on evening and came to the house of an old Skelmer. I explained to him who I was and that I was running for office. But he insisted that he would vote for his old friend, Albert Davies. When I tried to tell him that he had three votes and I was on the same party as Albert Davies, it made no difference."

There was also a lot of friction between the new towners and the Government corporation. Since they did not live in the new town, corporation executives were slow to respond to the residents' demands for public telephones, playgrounds, and community centers.

The corporation executives are upper-middle class. One new towner's description of his meeting with the corporation's chairman exemplifies the gap between these two groups: "I met the Skelm chairman yesterday, you know, the man with all those initials before his last name. He kept talking about golf. I've never even been to a driving range, never had the money. Finally, he asked me what my handicap was. I told him, "The wife."

So British new towns are a long, long way from Utopia. But some of the revolutionary ideas that are making the new towns will not doubt pan out. Meanwhile, the new towners are living in nicer homes and enjoying more community facilities than they ever would have dreamed possible. Even the conflicts between new towners, Old Skelmers, and corporation executives seem small in some perspectives. One event, for example, brought the whole town resoundingly together--Skelm's climb to the amateur soccer final at Wembley