There's a debate raging in political circles over new towns – could the country's housing crisis be solved by the creation of a wave of 21st-century garden cities in increasingly overpopulated south-east England, or are the grand visions of certain Coalition figures simply follies in the making?

The deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is a fan, having suggested over the weekend that "where there is more work and more demand, we should bite the bullet and create garden towns and garden cities", and the Communities secretary Eric Pickles appears to be on board, saying that the government "could produce a garden city or two - provided it is in places where people want it and there are authorities expressing an interest".

But the Mayor of London Boris Johnson is fiercely opposed, writing in his Daily Telegraph column that "rolling hills will be submerged beneath the crawling roofs of Cleggton Keynes". Instead of sacrificing the English countryside, Johnson argues that the solution to the housing crisis could lie in developing London's "brownfield" sites.

So are new towns a disaster waiting to happen or a forward-thinking answer to Britain's housing issues? Writing in New Humanist a few years ago, when it was the Labour government toying with the idea, Owen Hatherley mounted a defence of new towns, suggesting that opposition may have its roots in an elitist perceptions of "newness" and rural suspicion of city-dwellers.

In essence, the conviction is that any new town which stressed its “newness” would necessarily be “soulless” or “ugly”. It’s notable that the only major New Town begun since the late 1960s is Prince Charles’ pet project, Poundbury. Its planner Leon Krier is an apologist for the Nazi architect and politician Albert Speer, whose pompous classical edifices would, if Hitler had won the war, have transformed Berlin from a modern metropolis into the neoclassical showpiece “Germania”.

Speer wanted to design new buildings that somehow didn’t look new – a “theory of ruin value” that has been embraced in Prince Charles’ new town, where buildings are apparently pre-distressed to give them an old, distinguished appearance, and where any technological innovation post-1780 is verboten. So what of the New Town? Might it actually be the case that the humanist impulse would be to deliberately design a place for people’s actual needs, as opposed to putting up with the accidents of history and land values? To build such a place is a very Enlightenment idea, and it’s one worth re-evaluating today, rather than dismissing it out of hand as “concreting over the countryside”.

Could new towns provide a humanist solution to Britain's housing shortage? Read the rest of Hatherley's essay and see if you agree.