Fifty years old this year, Britain's New Towns have come of age. Europe sees them as an answer to urban ghettoes and Hong Kong Chinese are flocking in. Nonie Niesewand celebrates a time when new Labour built a brave new world. Photographs by Adrian White
The New Town is 50 years old and looking its age. Little sign here of rave parties, road rage or residents on the rampage: the New Town is home to cucumber sandwiches on small, manicured lawns with kidney-shaped ponds or sherry with the neighbours behind net curtains. And estate agents' windows emphasise the period aspects by advertising "sun lounges", "kitchen diners", "roll-up garage doors" and "hatches". A detached, three-bedroomed house with these not-so mod cons costs pounds 174,000 in Crawley, where the wilting banners across wide streets urge the 70,000 residents to "Smile and Celebrate 50 Years".

The idea for New Towns is older than that. Professional town planning was first started in 1898 by Ebenezer Howard, who advocated garden cities in his book, Tomorrow, a Peaceful Path to Real Reform. Then, in 1946, Patrick Abercrombie drew up plans for the Green Belt and the New Towns which the post-war Labour government implemented when they came to power.

New Towners were vetted by housing corporations: hardship counted, as did skills, since industry had to be attracted to the area to get the mix of social classes and incomes for a healthy community. This was spelt out by Lewis Silkin in the New Town Act of 1946: "We may well produce in the new towns a new type of citizen, a healthy, self-respecting dignified person with a sense of beauty, culture and civic pride."

If you sneer at the twee and the picturesque, hate the idea of urns sawn in half nailed to the front door and snigger at gladiolis, then Britain's 28 New Towns fail on the grounds of beauty and culture. But it is difficuilt to deny them their civic pride. Street plans without hierarchical living - clustered communities with shopping, parking, leisure centres and gardens have made New Towns the envy of Europe. Forget the plaques "twinned with Arnhem - Europeans would like to clone the model town plans as a solution to their post-war ghettoes.

The New Town Master Plan holds few surprises for anyone who has played the Sim City computer game. First power; then industry, stations and airports, schools, hospitals, old-age homes, playing fields and a communal green. The young Princess Elizabeth planted a maple in the middle of Crawley, where it now shades the shopping mall.

Any part of the exisiting town had to be absorbed as ye olde curiosity shoppe or a merrie England pub; otherwise, it was bought by compulsory purchase and knocked down. Daisy and Florrie Warren got lucky in Crawley when they were served an order and then allowed to run their hardware shop under leasehold in their 19th-century, stolid block.

To stop the monotony of monopoly board houses, the Master Plan specified that architectural styles had to change as often as the building materials. So Tudor Bethan with timber cross bracing, Queen Anne chimney pots and post-Luytens look-alikes in purple brick all resolve their differences in brand-new housing estates.

But the real difference in town planning between the Nineties and the Forties lies in the inspiration for the design. Nineties style is to be eco-friendly. In the Forties, planning was driven by the motor car. Dual- lane carriageways lead to New Towns where wide streets end in a cul de sac. Kerbs are big enough for cricket matches, docking bays outside terraces mean that six cars can be washed at a time and back-to-back garages line every estate. Even the green space has lay-bys for the occupants of the cars to admire the forest emerging in clumps from all the Tarmac wrapped around it.

When they were built, streets were adorned, as never before, by Dickensian and Georgian lanterns, signs celebrating "The Avenues" or "The Greens", and floral clocks, which gave an excuse for a roundabout. A wild card in the master plan (it was probably Antonio Minoprio, the architect of Cwmbran in South Wales and Crawley in Surrey) stipulated "the attractive features of continental towns - sculptures, fountains, flower boxes, flag poles, murals, wrought iron, floodlighting."

This brave new world encouraged a bold conquest of inner space. The New Look that Christian Dior had pioneered in fashion for women in 1947 was echoed in home furnishing. Housewives were no longer tidied away in the kitchen with its Formica worktops, Tupperware and the Kenwood mixer, but were now connected to the family by sliding hatches and hostess trolleys.

Within two decades, these hesitant beginnings had encouraged kitchens to spill over into dining rooms and gobble up the living space as well. New Towners tried and tested the world's first portable radios, pack-flat alarm clocks, Venetian blinds, self-assembly chandeliers, cork wallcoverings, wall-to-wall Axminsters in autumnal shades, three piece suites, avocado- coloured baths and basins, and double-width garage doors

And New Town inhabitants are enjoying longevity, too. Widowed Elisabeth Chappell, 93, the seventieth resident to be granted a home in Cwmbran in 1952, recalls the street party they held for the Coronation. But at the 50-year celebrations this summer, voices were heard to denounce the elderly who live alone in their two- and three-bedroomed houses, when changing demographics mean that more singles - either through choice, or divorce - need to be housed.

But the way in which New Towns evolve reflects the changing face of Britain. Milton Keynes is now a popular destination for families leaving Hong Kong, with more than a thousand arriving in the Buckinghamshire new town and a further 3,000 expected to make it their new home. The Commission for New Towns marketed the towns' attractions by showing videos in the former colony and offering fly-and-buy package tours before the handover of Hong Kong. Crawley recognises its colonial heritage with two mosques for the town's 7,000 Muslims, and a Sikh temple set beside the sputnik spires of Christian churches.

And when 300 residents signed a petition asking the council to find an alternative site when a proposal was put forward for a hostel for homeless youngsters in Crawley, they were sharply reminded by the council of the need to be tolerant. Not only are the youngsters to be vetted before being given a place there - just as rigorously as the town's first residents were vetted 50 years ago - but the Crawley Conservative headquarters is next door to an existing hostel, and Councillor Richard Burrett was able to reassure the petitioners that they are perfect neighbours.

By 2011, Britain will neeed another 737,000 households. Suddenly, New Towns are fashionable again as even the European Parliament are arguing for sustainable garden cities. Every wannabe townplanner, designer, architect, councillor and mayor who wants to control a megalopolis in the 21st century will have to go back to the future.