Grand planning vision of the 1940s

Twelve months ago, responding to an editorial, reader Graham Worthington contacted us to say he had a copy of a book called County Palatine – A Plan for Cheshire, prepared by W Dobson Chapman, a past president of the Town Planning Institute, prepared in consultation with the Advisory Planning Committee for Cheshire County Council.

We never like borrowing old books (we tend to write on them or lose them) but kept Mr Worthington’s letter and eventually bought a copy of the book ourselves. It was dated 1947; ours had a pressed flower in the back (rather touching!).

The book is fascinating, as it shows what planners wanted in the post-war period. It gives more than a degree of perspective to the current house-building spree: in a nutshell, even accounting for nearby Crewe’s greater-than-expected growth, the old Congleton borough is still more than 20,000 people down on what the planners expected back in 1947. The tone of the book is one of very capable people making thoroughly prepared plans. (And writing in plain English — generally, the better someone understands a topic the more clearly they can write about it).

As the report said in 1947: “In certain quarters any suggestion of change in the rural pattern is looked at askance, but a disinterested examination of the problems involved shows that no policy of sheltered protection is ever likely to succeed.”

The war had meant a cessation to town planning and its end meant town planners had what amounted to a clean slate.

Everything hung on the transport infrastructure and there were plans for a new national motorway (plus regional motorways). The book also shows where new housing areas would be designated. Congleton needed bypassing both to the west and east, the report said.

In all cases, the growth in population was people from the cities, the towns surrounding major conurbations being expected to take the overspill.

Congleton’s population was 15,160 when the report was prepared, and it suggested an optimum population of 27,160, with an ultimate population of 36,785. Wikipedia gives a population of 26,437 for 2010, meaning the town has never reached the lower figure deemed optimal in 1947. In comparison, Crewe, then a town of 52,000, is given an upper figure of 60,740 – today it is 83,650 (2011 census).

The same is true for other towns. Alsager had a population of 6,500, with projected population of 15,750, compared to today’s 11,775. The town had had 14,000 people working at the Radway Green during the war doubling its population.

Sandbach’s post-war population was 8,500 and it was deemed capable of taking a population of between 20,350 and 24,550. The 2011 census recorded a population of 17,976.

Most remarkable is Holmes Chapel: just 1,150 people in 1947 but given a population allocation of between 21,550 and 22,840 (it was next to new national motorway). The population in 2011 was 5,669.

Red Bull, Scholar Green and Lawton gate had a combined population of 1,550 but were expected to grow to between 7,015 and 12,055. Church Lawton today (again, Wikipedia figures) is 2,201.

Doing a rough tally of the figures, this means we are 46,000 people short of the projected populations from 1947.

It’s clear where some of these have gone — Crewe is 23,000 people over its projected growth — but even so, this area is still 23,000 people short of the 1947 prediction. Macclesfield is actually bang on the target: 35,000 people in 1947 but planned to grow to around 50,000 (higher and lower optimal figures of 49,300 and 55,675), its 2011 population was 52,044. (Winsford, the overspill town, is also down on its predicted population, before you ask).

The book is 200 pages long and the discussion lengthy but the gist of the idea is to move the overspill populations from cites like Manchester and Stoke, also providing jobs and transport, and better arrange the distribution of existing industry.

It divides towns up according to their industrial heritage. Congleton is often cited as a rare town to have kept its medieval street plan but that is not mentioned. The “few old country towns and market centres that have been left virtually untouched” by development were the likes of Tarporley, Malpas, Frodsham and Audlem.

Congleton falls in with the old country towns that had adapted themselves to industrial growth but which presented “very considerable problems of redevelopment” — Macclesfield, Middlewich and Sandbach also fell into this group. They all suffered some degree of unregulated industrial growth and low standard of housing within and about the town centres.

The report said: “This leaves much to be desired, both on the score of density and of quality. In nearly all these cases the central areas require complete re-organisation and, so far as practical, the re-grouping of industries, which are now intermingled chaotically with residential and other urban uses.”

Later industrial towns and villages that had developed during the current (20th) century included the Elworth district of Sandbach, as well as Holmes Chapel, where two large industrial undertakings had “transformed” the character of the village.

Going through specific proposals, we’ll start with Holmes Chapel, facing possibly the biggest change. The population was 1,150, but the report said that, given its central position and distance from Manchester, together with its first-class communications, it was “perfect” for enlargement and 20,000 of Manchester’s surplus had been allocated to the village.

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Holmes Chapel. Orange is houses, purple industry, blue open space. The red and black is the proposed national motorway. The hatchmarks at Cranage show the housing development there was provisional.

The land zoned to accommodate this number was a compact extension to the west, south and south-east, “conveniently divided into three” by the brook and railway. A further “neighbourhood unit” was proposed north of the Dane around Cranage. Industry was earmarked for a site east of the railway, near the station.

Interestingly, the report said: “The business and life of the village is seriously interfered with by the constant and heavy stream of industrial traffic”, but it was felt the proposed national motorway would address this.

Congleton suffered from heavy traffic in its main street, and it was planned to eliminate through traffic by means of a new peripheral road around the west, north and east in the surrounding rural area — two by-passes. One ran from Warren south to Eaton, by-passing Congleton and ending at Rode Heath, the other went from Eaton south, heading for the county boundary.

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Congleton. Orange is houses, purple industry, blue open space. The black and white roads are the proposed by-passes.

Recent development had been in ribbon form in all directions along the existing roads, and infilling and consolidation was in order “to produce a compact town with the minimum disturbance of and interference with agricultural land”. Sufficient land was zoned in to accommodate an overspill of 10,000 people from the Potteries, in addition to 4,700 people displaced when Congleton’s shoddy old houses were redeveloped.

The main industries, employing nearly half the town’s workpeople, were textiles and clothing, the mills arranged alongside the river but “to the detriment” of the Dane as an amenity. An area on the south side of the river from the Empire Cotton Mill, and across Timber Brook to Havannah would be earmarked for industrial purposes, so the mills and other industries could be moved there, and the amenity value of the river restored.

Alsager was said to have been “a very slowly growing district” before the war, with “a high proportion of its inhabitants engaged principally in black-coated occupations”. The arrival of the Royal Ordnance Factory created 14,000 jobs during the war, and the population doubled from its 1939 level of 3,000. The report suggested expanding the partly-industrialised area of land east of the town on both sides of Linley Lane, immediately south of Lawton Station.

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Alsager. Orange is houses, purple industry, blue open space. The red and black is the proposed national motorway, orange and black the regional motorway, black and white a proposed new main road.

In Sandbach, Elworth and Wheelock were described as industrial villages while an area along the railway, south-west of the town between Elworth and Wheelock, was earmarked for future development as a light industrial estate. Accommodation for 10,000 people relocated from cities would be via “a consolidation of the existing sporadic development”.

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Sandbach: Orange is houses, purple industry, blue open space. The red and black is the proposed national motorway, black and white proposed new trunk roads.

Finally: Middlewich is a town that seems to have seen a lot of houses built — but it is as the plan predicted. It had a population of 6,500 but had been allocated 14,000. In 2011, its population was 13,101. In 1947, some 408 acres were zoned for urban growth to accommodate a natural increase in population of 1,500, together with 6,000 immigrants. An undeveloped area of 128 acres was allocated to light industrial use on the east side of the railway.

Obviously all these new people needed transport and the new national motorway would play a part. The main local section was the north-south road passing Alsager and Cranage. In Cheshire it would replace the existing A50 trunk road, relieving through-traffic in such places as Holmes Chapel and Knutsford.

A spur road from the national motorway was planned from Cranage passing to the east of Knutsford and connecting with Princess Parkway into Manchester.

Another regional motorway would connect the national motorway at Alsager with the Potteries by-pass.

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A larger view of the road network, red and black being the national motorway, orange and black the regional motorway.

There was actually a triangle of one-purpose motorways, the national motorway running from south to north across the county, entering it to the west of Alsager and leaving it between Lymm and Warrington, with the connecting spurs leading off. There was also a regional motorway running from east to west across the northern part of the country, designed to carry the flow of motor traffic to Chester and North Wales, and the regional link to the Potteries by-pass.

While some parts of the plan have materialised and others not, the most glaring difference is over what it calls airways. It suggested three “first-class civil airports” were needed in Cheshire, strategically distributed.

Ringway was “obviously” one but another was slated for . . . . Crewe. The town was “an obvious” second choice, the airport built on the grounds of Crewe Hall and in direct connection with the postal sorting depot. Minshull Vernon was another possible site. (The third choice was Hooton Airport).


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