Book review: Rebuilding Britain: Planning for a better future

Henry Cleary reviews Rebuilding Britain: Planning for a better future by Hugh Ellis and Kate Henderson.

Early in the Coalition Government a then colleague described presenting to his Minister the emerging plans for a major railway project whose reduced journey times would transform the relationship between cities. The Minister's enthusiasm was instant... "This really is strategic planning ...mmm, but we mustn't call it that".

Loss of "strategic planning" is just one of the disconnects which Hugh Ellis and Kate Henderson point up in this powerful and provocative book, a call to arms to re-invigorate a planning system in crisis. A crisis because positive public engagement has declined , politicians are reluctant to defend, the benefits of development to communities are unclear, and the capacity to handle really urgent big picture pressures – housing supply, climate change and north-south divide (national and global) is dangerously weakened.

Of course, as the railway example shows, an enormous amount of planning is going on and on such projects engagement can be very high but they aren’t seen in a big picture. The authors see an increasing fragmentation, driven by the market, deregulation, and, in their survey of current policies, a growing disconnect between neighbourhood, local plans and national infrastructure and the disappearance of any wider objectives in terms of what good planning can achieve.

The book prompts the question of how many of the world’s problems can (or should) planning take on and will that make it any easier to get people to see a bigger picture. The authors have no doubt that planning needs a moral and political agenda "how a collective vision can create the conditions where more sustainable and co-operative living is encouraged and the quality of life improved".

Is this the way to rebuild a movement? There are big challenges – increasing technological complexity, higher consumer expectations, globalisation and (relatively) poorer and weaker states; it was a lot simpler in 1946. The difficulty with resupply of planning’s moral compass from the visionary heritage of pioneering settlements from Thomas More to the New towns and Freiburg, as the authors intend, is that the boundary with social and political reform is difficult to limit as a look at the pioneers illustrate. Housing the poor quickly leads on to tackling wider inequality (north-south, intergenerational), re-distribution of (land) wealth and so on.

But look back a lot further; it was not just the Soviets who gave the p-word a bad press. Until 1945 our national character had for centuries distrusted grand plans and kept the state small until crisis forced action and not always conceded even then - Wren was given short shrift in his plans for rebuilding London after the Great Fire. Addressing a District Council planning committee today on how the revised local plan will be based on the principles of Thomas More, Gerard Winstanley and Henry George would be a fascinating but probably short lived exercise.

Having said this it is surely accepted now that visionary planning at the level of whole new communities can play a huge role in the long term success of the project and that must mean engaging with the values and aspirations that those who live there want to achieve. The TCPA Garden Cities principles make a start and the recent Wolfson Garden cities competition has re-energised some of that skill at practical level.

Kate Henderson and Hugh Ellis are not only concerned with rescuing a concept of utopia and restoring visionary planning; they also offer specific proposals including: a new legal objective for planning to restore its wider sustainable development (social and equity) objectives; a national spatial plan, a revived RCEP to help cope with emerging science as in climate change and for planners to be recognised as community development workers.

The authors gives us a stimulating and timely debate but I am less pessimistic than them on current trends. Big spatial issues – airports, trains, London, high streets and housing - are getting attention – not least politically. But we need to be less reliant on Government to join up the discussions. Government may stop doing things but cannot then oppose others picking up the reins. Trust and engagement would be better promoted by a neutral third sector expert body. A National Trust for Planning anyone?

Planning for a better future is published by Policy Press ISBN 978 1 44731 759 3 paperback

Henry Cleary, independent advisor on housing growth, retired from DCLG in 2011


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