Online Archive  
Issue 5 - May 1972
Peterlee - City Of Trees

Peterlee is one of England's 18 new towns, and the first to be started in the north. The project was started in 1948 with two objectives - to provide new jobs in the region to replace those lost in pit closures, and to rehouse families away from the pit villages of Easington Rural District.

The site chosen was centrally placed between Hartlepool, Durham and Sunderland, and more specifically near Horden - one of the few long-life pits in the district - which could supply materials for new industry.

Thus Peterlee was started on a completely virgin site, and faced in an extreme form the problems of all new towns - basically those of trying to forge a coherent social unit out of a huge mass of buildings, and to give the people a sense of community. The priorities for development that the Peterlee Development Corporation decided on hardly seemed likely to encourage such a process. Their priorities were 1) Housing, 2) Industry, 3) Schools and Education and, lastly, shops and social facilities. After 25 years Peterlee still looks like a gigantic housing estate rather than town. It's obvious that the planners did not, and never have, considered the question of quality of life in Peterlee, never considered the lives of the people living in the town, but have always thought of Peterlee as a town for industry. To the industrialist it can offer new factories and a large pool of unemployed labour trapped in the town, who need only to be paid minimal wages. Very early on the Development Corporation showed its true interests. Originally the factories were to be built at some distance from the housing estates; but just after the war, industry wasn't easy to attract, so as an incentive to firms, the factories were put right next door to the houses.

After the powers that be had decided to build a new town, people had to be moved to it. So, as houses deteriorated in the neighbouring villages, families were 'offered' new accommodation in Peterlee. They had no choice in the matter, so that a good proportion of the town's population is there against its will. Again, no thought was given to the people involved in the situation, or to community ties and social structures.

"The planning of Peterlee reveals the shape of a town where the motor car can be subordinated to human use and need and where an environment to live in has been created which can bear comparison with any other developments that have taken place."

Dan Smith (one-time NEDC chairman, PRO man extraordinaire, and past chairman of the Peterlee Development Corporation) in the Corporation's 1969 report.

If Dan Smith says Peterlee was planned, then I suppose it was, but no-one in the town itself seems to think so. They see it as a completely haphazard development, with its own insane logic. For example, in 1968 the Corporation decided that a bus station was needed in the town centre, but when it was half-built they changed their mind (sic) and the uncompleted shell now serves as a car park.

Also, after the town centre was built, it was decided that a new town needed a pedestrian shopping centre, so a precinct was built on two levels on the site of the former main street, and thousands of pounds had to be spent on re-routing the traffic.

Moreover, Peterlee Corporation is notoriously shy about publishing any advance plans or facts and figures. This is in striking contrast to Washington Development Corporation who have a permanent exhibition centre and publish a monthly bulletin.

But then it must be difficult to plan a town that's being built on a coal field - all the time there is a running battle between the NCB and the Development Corporation about whether what's going on above ground or below is more important - generally bits of the town are built where the NCB decides not to mine. Even so, there's been trouble with subsidence, and it's ironic that the Development Corporation office has sunk ten feet in the last eight years.

Another nice touch is that the original architect was a man called Lubinski: world famous for building a multi-storey block of flats outside London and the extension to London Zoo!!

The aim of Peterlee was to provide a new industrial base for the people of the north-east to stop them from moving south when the mines closed. This it has always failed to do. The NCB is still the largest employer in Peterlee (after the dole). Industrial estates have quickly become exploitation factories; the whole set-up has been something of a con trick. The factories employ only the cheapest labour (women) in light industries.

As of March 1971 (the latest figures available) the population of Peterlee was 24,548 and only 1,380 men and 2,252 women had jobs. Unemployment even then was 7.2% - the highest figure for any new town. The Corporation itself, although professing to be concerned at the situation (although businessmen are never really worried by such a state of affairs) hardly helped by deciding to make Peterlee the science centre of the north. In encouraging technologically advanced industry - presumably for prestige reasons - they seemed to want to discourage industries employing large numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled men. Instead huge amounts were spent on large sites employing very few people. IBM spent £0.25 million on a vast computer complex right in the centre of Peterlee employing a mere handful of men.

Although the Development Corporation estimate that the town should be responsible for 12,000 jobs by 1980, this seems hardly likely.

Tudor Crisps are the biggest factory in Peterlee. In Stephenson Road, right on top of the oldest estates in Peterlee, their chimneys belch out smoke and smell pollution that no-one dares complain about. Tudors employ 400 men and 300 women at wages even lower than those of the NCB they were supposed to replace. Moreover the unions in Tudor are in the pockets of the management. It's interesting that one of the two unions in the factory is the GMWU, which is Alderman Cunningham's union. (Alderman Cunningham is one of the members of the Development Corporation.) Firms move into Peterlee to exploit the labour force, then if the going gets touch, move out and leave the employees stranded. One example of this is Thruster Marine, an American company, which went into liquidation owing all its employees a fortnight's wages. Similarly a precast concrete firm went out of business, and now a scrapyard is being built on the site - right next to the houses on Stephenson Road. The residents, needless to say, had no voice in the matter: they didn't even know it was happening.

"The only brief that was given to the design team was to produce an architecture which could give expression to the needs of an expanding community and by the aesthetic and organic use of space encourage social participation."

So says the blurb, and in accordance with this policy an artist was appointed in 1954 to work with the architects. The result is now becoming apparent - a town that is unliveable in. Because of all the concrete, and the site of the town itself, it is far too hot in summer and freezing cold in winter.

In fact, although housing was the Corporation's stated first priority, it has been the area of bitterest complaint on the part of the residents, and greatest inefficiency on the part of the Corporation. There has been constant trouble; because of the coalfield, and because Peterlee was built on a geological fault, there has been considerable subsidence. Other houses have been substandard, and nearly all have been shoddily built. In February 1970 the Corporation even went so far as to refuse to accept 533 houses because they were substandard. However it is mainly about the older houses that there are most complaints. There seems to be general agreement in the town that the Corporation is not the slightest bit bothered with the older areas of the town. It is supposed to be responsible for maintenance, but many houses have peeling paintwork, and it is almost impossible to get repairs done. Peterlee, in fact, is being built as a ready-made slum. A typical case is that of a young couple with a child who live in one of the oldest houses in Peterlee. They pay £3.45 for a two bedroom house. When they complained of a draught through their windows, a Corporation joiner (or plumber, or general handyman - they don't seem to have specialist craftsmen) went round. He examined the windows, and then nailed a thin strip of rough, unpainted wood all round the inside of the window frame. And that constituted a repair job. The man's comment was: "They don't care about repairs as long as they are getting the rent." Yet most people never get the chance, and have no option but to stay in Peterlee.

Social facilities
"One of the directives given to the Corporation in 1948 was that Peterlee should provide, for the first time, a commercial and social centre for the main part of the Easington Rural District as well as the new town."

It's difficult to see how the Corporation can consider that it has in any way achieved this objective. Having forcibly destroyed the carefully built-up community sense of the original pit villages, having moved people wholesale up to the bare heights of Peterlee, the Corporation has made no attempt to provide any social amenities for the new town at all. Houses don't make a town, but none of the experts concerned with building Peterlee seemed to have realised this simple fact.

One of the strongest voiced complaints is that there is nowhere for the kids to play. The only place for them to go in the centre of town is the Arts and Information Centre, and although they don't cause any trouble, they are kicked out by the PDC 'police', who seem to rule the town with a rod of iron. A PDC patrolman told me "We don't have much trouble here". Not surprising really - they have dog patrols in the city centre at night to keep out undesirable characters. "We break up gangs immediately they form" I was told. Can you work out what that means? Incidentally it was the same 'policeman' who told me that Peterlee was the best city in the country - "Peterlee, city of trees". There is no cinema in Peterlee and nowhere t get a cup of coffee after 6 o'clock. There is only one club - the Senate Club - which runs bingo sessions during the daytime. Apart from that there are six pubs - there was a large working men's club but it had to be closed down because of all the trouble in there. There is a community centre run by the Development Corporation but it is stuck out on the outskirts of town (where else would you put a community centre?) and no-one uses it (although the kids do climb on the roof). And that's about it.