In his new documentary New Town Utopia, director Christopher Ian Smith offers an eye-opening account of how greed and political bias played a hand in the downfall of what was billed as one of the greatest social experiments in post-war Britain. The scheme which was hatched by Clement Attlee’s Labour government, came under the 1946 New Town Act which was devised to improve the lives of working people across the country and more specifically in London which was still recovering from the fallout of the Blitz in WW2. Many East End dwellers made the move from London to these new towns seduced by the promise of new homes and better paying jobs, however less than 50 years later most of these towns were left to slowly deteriorate and those who lived in them with nowhere else to turn to.
Focusing the bulk of the narrative on the birth of Basildon, one of the most iconic new towns in Essex, the film opens and is often intercut with an impassioned speech by the then Minister of Town and Country Planning Lewis Silkin (voiced by Jim Broadbent). With extensive use of archival footage as well as a series of talking-head interviews from artists and high-profile Basildonians, New Town Utopia is careful not to mythologize the place and its residents. We are from the get go informed of the town’s bad reputation throughout the country as one of the most violent places you could possibly find yourself in, something that most of the interviewees don’t seem to disagree with.
Speaking candidly and with great fondness of their upbringing amongst the depressing concrete buildings of the original Basildon town, actors, musicians and artists tell Smith of the hardships faced by their families once the money to improve their town had run out. From the implementation of “right to buy” introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government, to the complete disregard for the arts by local authorities, Basildon soon became a ghost town filled with broken dreams.
Overall, New Town Utopia does a great job in highlighting how politics and bad town-planning had a hand in the demise of the New Town experiment, but it also manages to portray those who were born and brought up in it with a great deal of respect and sympathy for a place they still proudly call home. Whilst the film gets a little repetitive towards the end, nobody can deny that its heart is mostly in the right place and for that alone, director Christopher Ian Smith should be commended for doing Basildon and its sons and daughters proud.
New Town Utopia is in cinemas from Friday 4th of May.