Crap towns – the real problem is neglect, not bad design

Hemel Hempstead is the ugliest town in Britain, according to a recent poll on my site,, providing people with a rare chance to point out that not everything is glorious in our homeland. More than 3,000 people voted – and almost a third of them for poor old Hemel, knocking Luton and Slough into second and third place respectively.

I've been to Hemel Hempstead – once – and that was plenty, thank you. I've seen the drabness, the graffiti and the hopeless crumbling mess of a shopping centre. I've seen the grey tower blocks, the roundabouts, and the roundabouts within the roundabouts.

Of course online polls aren't entirely scientific. Hemel isn't the only ugly place I've been. Not so long ago I visited Cumbernauld – the one place capable of making me think maybe Hemel isn't so bad after all. Go to Cumbernauld on a rainy day and you'll start feeling jealous of all those people pootling round the endless roundabouts of Hemel; at least they've got something to occupy their time.

But it isn't just the statistics I need to question. There's also the fact that ugliness is in the eye of the beholder. If I'd run this survey 50 years ago, it's possible that most correspondents would have been writing in about the horrors of the Euston Arch and that great sooty mess of St Pancras station beside it. Architectural taste runs in cycles and we seem to despise the creations of our grandparents' generation the most.

At the moment, the pet hate is the "concrete monstrosity". My fear is that in our eagerness to replace such excesses of the 1960s, we may well demolish the equivalent of St Pancras. In fact, we're already doing it. We've lost the stunning Get Carter car park, which loomed over the centre of Gateshead for many years and featured so prominently in the famous Michael Caine film. Sure it was falling apart, but at least it was interesting. And what have they replaced it with? A giant, featureless mall centred around a Tesco. Will losing the brutalist bus station in Preston really improve things? Or will it mean losing a potential landmark of the future?

An awful lot of people have written to me suggesting Coventry looked better shortly after the Luftwaffe had levelled it and that the best thing to do with the town would be to bulldoze it. This isn't just a cheap gag. Plenty of Coventry is irredeemable. The ring roads in most towns do as the name implies, and circle the outskirts – in Coventry it cuts right through the middle. It's a terrible noisy, polluting mess and the only way to improve it is to get rid of it. Some of Coventry, however, with a little more love, could be stunning. The cathedral is the best demonstration of how good postwar architecture can be, but there are plenty of interesting and strange constructions (how many towns boast a building that looks just like a robot?) The real problem is neglect, not bad design.

The same is true of Cumbernauld. Architecturally the giant concrete megastructure that makes up the centre is potentially as impressive as the Barbican in London. What's the difference? A fortune has been spent keeping the Barbican in good repair, and people spend a fortune to live there. Cumbernauld – although there were some well-meaning attempts at regeneration during the New Labour years – has suffered decades of disrepair and deterioration. I'm told that people in the 1960s loved the place – and that wasn't just because tastes were different back then. It was because it was much more pleasant there than it is now.

All the towns that garnered the most votes in the ugly town survey have stories of decline as much as bad planning. I'd be surprised if any of them are entirely hopeless. Soon, we may well be lobbying English Heritage to preserve the car parks of Luton and malls of Camberley. Our towns and cities are always in a state of flux. It would be wrong to consign any of them to the dustbin, even if some of them need a damn good clean up.