Fyson on ... celebrating the life and legacy of planning pioneer

Celebrating the life and legacy of planning pioneer who fused economics with humanitarianism.

Last week's University College London-RTPI conference on planning and development economics, held to celebrate the life and work of the late Nathaniel Lichfield, started gloomily as Christine Whitehead spelt out the implications of public expenditure cuts.

When news broke that the recession is now the worst for 50 years, it might have got a lot gloomier. But the warmth, humanity and perception that Professor Lichfield brought to his long life in planning constantly illuminated a day of academic insight and personal reminiscence.

Malcolm Grant said in his welcoming remarks that Lichfield's purpose was to cut through the political babble with the coolness of economic analysis. But as he wrote five years before he died, aged nearly 93, his motivation was always to help the profession "sell our ideas convincingly and not just with conviction" to "raise people's sights about the world they might live in".

Lichfield was a persuasive advocate of land value taxation (LVT) and the capture of betterment for the public good, so he would surely have been delighted that the subject figured prominently in the proceedings so soon after the withdrawal of the planning gain supplement (PGS) proposals.

Liz Peace of the British Property Federation argued persuasively for better awareness of development economics in the public sector. But she avoided the issue of whether the PGS would have served her interest better than the current tariff-related community infrastructure levy.

Politics don Iain McLean suggested that politicians are "running scared" of change to local government finance arrangements. He favoured an LVT-like reform based on house values, which bizarrely he thought could be assessed on house types regardless of location. He also managed to introduce the day's only discordant note by defiantly confirming that his proposal would force large numbers of the elderly on fixed incomes out of their homes. It is difficult to imagine Lichfield approving such an outcome.

His major technical innovation, the planning balance sheet (PBS), has a valuable future, especially in transport studies. As Leeds academic Chris Nash explained, the PBS and related community and environmental impact evaluations set out the effect of policy options on different groups, which is crucial information for politicians aspiring to make humanitarian decisions.

It is a noble and practical legacy from a gentle radical who grew up in poverty in London's East End, fought the fascists in the battle of Cable Street and rose to the very top of his profession.

- Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.

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