Why Washington had district numbers instead of village names, and why the scheme was scrapped

It was the idea that put Washington on the map – for all the wrong reasons.

Tuesday, 19th November 2019, 9:11 am

The use of district numbers – rather than the names of the individual villages – was meant to make navigating the New Town a doddle.

But instead it made the development a laughing stock, and a byword of confusion among North East motorists.

Why use district numbers?

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The New Town's road signs originally featured district numbers, not names
The New Town's road signs originally featured district numbers, not names

Rising private car ownership was at the forefront of developers’ minds when plans for Washington’s huge expansion were being drawn up in the 1960s and 1970s.

The road lay-out would keep drivers and pedestrians apart, with bus links, underpasses and bridges making it possible to walk anywhere in safety.

Under-Secretary of State for the Environment Neil Carmichael explained the thinking in the House of Commons in July 1974.

“One feature of the master plan for Washington New Town, which was endorsed in 1967, is the creation of a new pattern of roads to aid traffic circulation within the town and to speed up its links with outside,” he told MPs.

The idea was hugely unpopular

“This is an important feature both for the convenience of those living in the town and as part of the development corporation's successful drive to attract there the employers needed to provide the jobs which are as important in a new town as the houses the corporation builds.

“The new road pattern is based on a one-mile grid of dual carriageway roads with limited access. New north-south and east-west roads will open up the undeveloped parts of the designated area and join up the various parts of the town, and divert through traffic on to less congested and safer routes.”

The plan was for roads making up the grid to meet at major intersections, each with its own number, and with the emphasis so much on the importance of driving, the decision was taken to divide the town up into districts, according to the local junction number.

The master plan was drawn up by Llewelyn Davies, the man who was also behind the layout of Milton Keynes.

It took four years to replace all the signs

What went wrong?

There was only one problem with the idea. Everybody – absolutely EVERYBODY – hated it.

The decision to have two names for areas – district and village – proved massively unpopular. No one liked the idea of living in a district and residents relied entirely on the village names.

Even people living in Washington would be hard pressed to tell you which district they lived in, let alone which one to follow for the Galleries or the Wildfowl Centre.

And the whole idea of building a New Town to promote industry and create jobs was somewhat undermined by complaints from businesses that delivery drivers were often unable to find their premises and ended up wasting valuable time searching for destinations.

Washington became a standing joke among North East drivers – ironic, given that the town’s road layout had specifically been designed to make navigating easy.

What happened?

The districts system had been the brainchild of the Washington Development Corporation, set up in the 1960s to oversee the creation of the New Town.

The corporation remained in place for more than 20 years, but finally bit the dust in 1988, at which point much of the responsibility for the town transferred to the then-Sunderland Borough Council.

It became increasingly obvious that the system was still hugely unpopular and in September 2002, councillors finally bowed to the inevitable.

The signs were to be gradually phased out, with the first 506 going at a cost of £500,000 over the next nine months.

Andy Morris, head of transport and engineering with Sunderland City Council, said at the time: "Once it became clear that people would prefer road signs to contain names rather than numbers, we decided to act.”

Ward councillor Derek Sleightholme said at the time that the district numbers had been ‘an experiment the people of Washington had had to live with.

He said: "From a roundabout, drivers will be able to direct themselves to those villages rather than Districts one, two or 19.”

It would take four years to replace the signs, but more than 220 new signs were installed over the next four years at a cost of around £1million – and the districts, thankfully, were consigned to history.