The history of Peterborough's development

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In 1967, Peterborough was declared a new town and a major chapter in its history began.

In 1967, Peterborough was declared a new town and a major chapter in its history began.Hannah Gray meets two men who were instrumental in building the thousands of houses which brought new residents to Peterborough.

VERY few people were more involved in, or more able to give an overview of, the development of Peterborough, than Wyndham Thomas.

Wyndham was the general manager of Peterborough Development Corporation, which was set up to carry forward the expansion of Peterborough, in partnership with the city council and the county council.

Before he started work with the corporation in 1968, he was the director of the Town and County Planning Association, which had earlier urged that several more new towns were needed as counter-magnets to the pull of London.

As part of this statement, Wyndham advocated doubling the size of Peterborough under the New Towns Act.

This later became official policy, and when the development corporation was established in early 1968, he applied for the job as its general manager.

Why was Wyndham so keen for Peterborough in particular to be expanded?

"It was strategically located 80 miles from London and from Birmingham, on the mainline railway and next to the A1," he said.

"This made it attractive then, as it still does, to firms and other organisations looking to move out of London.

"It would also be attractive to families living in London's overcrowded inner districts, which could then be rebuilt to provide much better conditions for family life and business efficiency."

After getting the job, Wyndham, his wife Betty and their four children moved to the city from Hemel Hempstead.

An initial plan of how Peterborough could be developed had been prepared by the Government of the day, and the development corporation was urged to get on with the development using this plan.

Wyndham said: "I was never happy with it because its structure seemed artificial and rigid, while I preferred informal and different kinds of new neighbourhoods offering a wider choice of homes and local surroundings, and at lower densities."But while the development corporation did modify this plan – known as the Hancock Plan, after the consultant who drew it up – it did largely stick to the township pattern proposed.

In most other areas where new towns had been built, there was tension between the development corporation and the existing local authorities, but Wyndham insists that in Peterborough, there was always a good partnership between the corporation and the local councils.

"The Peterborough councils wanted expansion, so they worked with the development corporation rather than against it, to everyone's benefit," he said.

The building of the new town really started with Bretton township, and plans included neighbourhoods for 5,000 houses, an industrial estate which would provide jobs for about 1,000 people, primary and secondary schools, what is now the Bretton Centre, and the first leg of the Parkway system, which later came to 32 miles in total.

Wyndham recalls that it was a rewarding and even exciting venture.

He said: "It was a tremendously interesting and enjoyable task to build a new town; not just housing estates but a proper town with all the social amenities, and recreation facilities and the industry and the commerce and a greatly improved city centre."

Wyndham can recall that there were times when the project was affected by downturns in the economic climate, as is happening today.

But despite a mixture of favourable fortunes, the new town brought new benefits to Peterborough – in particular, jobs.

Thomas Cook was the biggest single new company to come to Peterborough, moving 1,200 jobs from Berkeley Street in London. About 600 of its staff chose to come to Peterborough, where they could get better housing for less money and a far better environment.

In 1985, Wyndham left the development corporation.His career after that included working with the London Docklands Development Corporation, working as chairman and chief executive of a new organisation called Inner City Enterprises, which aimed to attract private investment into inner city regeneration, and various consultancy work to do with urban developments.

Recently, he has had a hand in promoting the idea of a new town outside Cambridge called Northstowe, which is to become an eco town.

Wyndham's feelings now on project Peterborough are mixed.

He said: "I'm much more aware of the things that we could have done much better if we'd been allowed to.

"We were held back by a shortage of resources, which primary means money.

"But we could have created a much better quality environment, much better quality housing conditions if we'd been given more freedom in the planning and design and just a little more in Government funding. I would have built the new neighbourhoods at lower densities, with more generous gardens and parking spaces, and more landscaped spaces around.

"Not that we didn't do a good job generally, but if we'd had more freedom from Whitehall interference we'd have done a better job.

"Remember, the city had no parkland at all before we created Nene park, all 2,000 acres of it, and the Parkway system too has made a great difference to the city's open character, as well as its traffic-handling efficiency.

"We greatly expanded the economy and business by attracting a large number of small firms and several substantial ones, who have given Peterborough a new economic strength.

"But there are dissatisfactions as well as a sense of real achievement. That will always be the case."