Crawley at 70: New town was a dream for some, a nightmare for others

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New town to go ahead – official, was the declaration on the front page of the Crawley & District Observer on Friday January 10 1947.

The decision had been announced in the London Gazette that same day by Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning following months of consultation and discussion,

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While many of the people living in the villages of Three Bridges and Ifield and the tiny town of Crawley saw Mr Silkin’s decision as the death knell for their way of life, for thousands of families it promised a new beginning away from bomb damaged London and its lack of housing.

The ‘old towners’ though, refused to give into change without a fight. The Worth, Crawley and Ifield Property Owners’ Association, chaired by Mr DA Butterfield, launched a fighting fund in the hope of raising £1,000 – an astonishing amount in those days – to plead with the High Court to quash the new town order.

Such was the strength of feeling that, within a week, they had been given or promised £350.

A similar battle was being carried out by the people of Stevenage, which had also been selected to be developed into a satellite town. Of course, neither war was won, though a number of smaller battles ended in victory.

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One of the major concerns raised by the Property Owners’ Association had been the fact the Town and Country Planning Bill stated any property that became subject of a compulsory purchase order would only be valued at 1939 prices plus 60 per cent.

By May, Mr Silkin had accepted this was “unjust” and changes were made.

Another victory saw 275 acres of land west of Worth, south of the railway, dropped from the plans.

The idea had been to use it as industrial land but, following an inspection by a team from the ministry, the Observer reported: “When it was inspected, it had certainly seemed very wet and they had got stuck in one lane!”

Years later, of course, Maidenbower was built there.

Among the list of concerns submitted to Mr Silkin was the fear the site chosen for the new town was too flat and the sub-soil was water-logged. Not a problem, said the minister “there should be no difficulty in providing an adequate system of drainage for all purposes”.

Another was the proximity of Gatwick Airfield to the proposed new town. In response to this, the minister stated: “The future use of Gatwick as an airfield is as yet undecided, but in the event of its continuation, it is likely to be used mainly as a base for charter and private flying.”

It’s easy to laugh...

One interesting point in the planning of the new town was that of the town centre and its level crossings – which are still the bane of many a motorist today.

Reporting the plans from the ministry, the Observer stated: “The time would come when reconstruction would have to take place in the centre of Crawley. It was a bad centre in some ways. The main centre of a town of 50,000 people would have to be something better than at the moment.

“Some level crossings would have to be done away with, but that was the second stage. Level crossings were a problem but the whole object of the modern conception of planning was to plan a town from which main through traffic should be excluded.”

It seems not all good ideas are destined to come to fruition.

One final point of interest. One of Crawley’s schools could have had a very different name. Thomas Bennett Community College was named after the chairman of the Crawley Development Corporation – but he only got the job because the original chairman, Sir Wilfred Lindsell, stepped down.