GROWING PAINS IN THE NEW TOWNS
TEN years ago the New Towns Committee under Lord Reith worked out principles for establishing cornpletely new towns which could support self-contained communities with their own social,
cultural and economic life.
The towns were to have a town centre with public buildings, theatres and shops; an industrial area; neighbouring units of housing, schools and shops; finally there was to be ample recreational space.
It was hoped by this experiment to stop the trend to dormitory estates and the drift of population into already overgrown cities. In 1946, the New Towns Act was passed, and today, 14 new towns exist in various -stages of completion: eight of them in the south. two in County Durham, one in South Wales and three in Scotland.
They all show obvious material triumphs: housing is well designed and varied, though rents remain high, ranging from 30s. to £3 a week. Factories are modern and well equipped and recreational space so ample that it has already been criticised as wasteful.
But the really outstanding fault of the new towns, as of the vast housing estates that have sprung up over the past 10 years, is that they were planned without any regard to the spiritual welfare of the inhabitants,
Neighbourhood units have been built with no cogent reason for their existence. As a result, most families moving into these new areas experience a feeling of loneliness, and Catholics in particular are faced with real difficulty in finding school places for their children as well as in travelling to Mass.
THESE problems are not being ignored by the Hierarchy. They had in fact been envisaged from the start of the building programmes by Bishops, priests and others interested in the spiritual welfare of residents in new housing areas, and suggestions were made for the solution of the difficulties.
Thus in 1952, Bishop Beck, writing to Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson about an estimated deficit in school places in the new towns of Harlow and Basildon, stated that " in new towns and on the new housing estates, it is important not only to house families hut to create cornmunities and to give thc people who come to live in these new areas the chance to have those social and cultural amenities which are the cement of community life. I am thinking mainly of churches and schools, but what I say is equally true of community centres, libraries, recreational facilities and so on. Would it not be possible ... to evolve a plan by which true neighbourhood units, with all their attendant amenities, can be created in the new towns and housing estates'?"
A similar theme was enunciated by the Bishop in his pastoral letter, of February, 1955: " Generally speaking, the public authorities have done very little to foster a sense of community in these new
areas. Schools have been built, it is true, clinics, health centres and in some cases community centres have been improvised; but most of the amenities which foster social life have been far too long delayed. Above all, the public authorities have made no real attempt to assist the spiritual and religious life of the people in these new areas."
QINCE that date a few addi tional amenities. such as shopping centres, have been added to the quota of clinics and libraries in new housing areas, but the deficit of Catholic school places remains, and is likely to grow still greater as the number of houses and inhabitants increases. Thus in a new town which will ultimately contain 100,000 people. 150 children were waiting to start at a non-Catholic primary school which is scheduled only as a two-form entry.
The position for Catholics. who number one in seven or eight of the population, is naturally worse. Over 80 children travel by bus six miles to the nearest Catholic school, and more are still hoping for transport, as the only scheduled Catholic school will not be completed until 1958.
On a large new housing estate that began five years ago, the position is similar. Of the total population of 31,000 people, one in every seven or eight is again a Catholic (the actual census revealed four in every 30). The first Catholic primary school was built last year, so that for four winters small children of five and six years have travelled by public bus five miles to the nearest Catholic school, and 400 children still travel daily between the estate and distant neighbouring suburbs to Catholic schools.
IT is not only school places . that are lacking in the new areas. Churches of all denominations are rare, and only gradually being built as funds allow.
For Catholics, the task of collecting enough money for school and church building is art onerous one. In one new town, the cost of the church to be built will be roughly f40.000. At present the congregation hears one Mass in the school hall hired at 25s. weekly, and two other Masses are said in the existing church three miles away from the town itself.
The distance from the church and lack of Catholic schools induces spiritual slackness. This is further increased by the facts that fathers do a lot of overtime in the new areas to pay for the higher rents and hire-purchase commitments of their new homes, and that the percentage of young children is so much higher than in older areas.
Too often a new house means a drift from the old Faith. Children attend non-Catholic sc,bools and parents find that it is not only unusual but expensive to attend church miles away from their homes. In this same new town, 250 people regularly attend Mass, but it is estimated that 450 stay away, and weekly Holy Communions rarely exceed 150.
HE position on a housing
estate is much the same. Only 25 per cent. of the Catholics are practising, and " a good number of children," so I am informed, " were baptised outside the Church or not at all. Last year 30 adult children received Baptism, a fair average for a year. Many children started at the denominational Sunday school when such churches were built," but the parish priest on this estatc has been wise enough to provide Catholic counter-attractions.
"Even amongst some of the practising Catholics." I learn, " the sense of obligation in religious duties is not strong. the sacraments not being received for long periods by those who regularly attend Mass. One in seven marriages is contracted outside the Church."
The present Mass attendance on this estate numbers about 1,100, excluding small children, and Mass is said in a school hall which is used for everything, including classes for infants. This means that quite often the priest and his helpers have to sweep and to move furniture after midnight to prepare the premises for the morning.
TOO FEW PRIESTS
T AM told that " it is not diffi cult to bring the people back to the Faith, as they are very attached to their Catholic past. A visiting priest here who has been concentrating on individual people who had lapsed has been very successful. An encouraging new start has been made by many Catholics, some of our organisations now being run by those who were previously lapsed. Those who have lapsed since moving are not by any means so numerous."
Visiting by the priest is one way the problem of spiritual isolation is being tackled in the new areas, but unfortunately there are still not enough priests to concentrate on individuals, and other means are used to combat leakage and foster religious life.
Thus, in one area, a monthly newsletter is put through the doors (by outdoor collectors) even of those who do not wish to practise. In
'order to keep the census of Catholics up to date. an annual count is taken, and at Christmas and Easter a special effort is made to invite every Catholic to receive
the sacraments by means of a personal letter enclosing a holy picture with times of services.
Special announcements are circulated to every house by duplicated slips (a large duplicator having been bought by hire purchase for this purpose). A colourful and imposing Corpus Christi procession is held; many people on this estate come from parishes with such a tradition, and last year two bands led nearly 2.000 people through the streets. Other parishes also sent contingents. Altars were put up outside houses, and homes were decorated.
A Christmas party is held to which every child over five on the estate is invited, and this effort has brought families back to the Church annually.
A good Sunday school is being built up, so dissuading Catholic children from attending the highlyorganised ones of other denominations.
SHOW PEOPLE HELP
ANY priests speak highly of prominent Catholic personalities in the entertainment world who give up their time to opening fetes, bazaars and similar enterprises. " They don't know how much good they did in making the Catholics here proud of themselves, making them the body here," writes one grateful priest.
Dances and whist drives do not flourish owing to the high proportion of young families, and some of the community halls on new towns are far 'too small, holding a maximum of 130 people.
Outings and pilgrimages are popular, and there is no shortage of members for confraternity or parish organisations although meetings have to be held in any available space—canteens, school rooms. old houses and Old Age Pensioners' common-rooms.
Officers or leaders for organisations (scouts, choir, children of Mary, etc.) arc hard to find. and sometimes have to be provided by outside parishes, a system which cannot continue indefinitely.
the ways in which priests and laity are creating vital new parishes and Catholic communities in vast housing areas.
their efforts have offset the bleakness, the sense of isolation and lack of community life amongst the residents, and their example is a spur not only to the people who will come after them. but also to some of the older areas which occasionally grow apathetic.
Such priests and their helpers are truly modern missionaries who begin with neither church nor school yet still do such great and unpublicised work in virgin territories.
Their efforts must not, however, blind us to the lesson of the new towns and estates. Plans for living which concentrate on the material and exclude the spiritual needs of men must be classed as failures, however brilliant the surface triumphs may appear to he.
In the words of that illuminating and succinct line which should become the watchword of all planners. " Unless the Lord build the house. they labour in vain who build."