Jam Tomorrow

F.M.L. Thompson

  • Clichés of Urban Doom, and Other Essays by Ruth Glass
    Blackwell, 266 pp, £25.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 631 12806 9
  • Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the 20th Century by Peter Hall
    Blackwell, 473 pp, £25.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 631 13444 1
  • London 2001 by Peter Hall
    Unwin Hyman, 226 pp, £17.95, January 1989, ISBN 0 04 445161 X
  • The Big Smoke: A History of Air Pollution in London since Medieval Times by Peter Brimblecombe
    Routledge, 185 pp, £12.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 415 03001 3
  • New York Unbound: The City and the Politics of the Future edited by Peter Salins
    Blackwell, 223 pp, £35.00, December 1988, ISBN 1 55786 008 4
  • The Idea of a Town: The Anthropology of Urban Forms in Rome, Italy and the Ancient World by Joseph Rykwert
    MIT, 241 pp, $15.00, September 1988, ISBN 0 262 68056 4

Time was when planning was the watchword of all radical, progressive or revolutionary opinion. Whether it was a matter of the wall-to-wall planning of the fully nationalised socialist economy, the liberal and pluralist arrangements of the welfare state with Keynesian economic management, or simply the protection and improvement of the environment, all schemes for making the world a better place to live in – or at least the advanced, industrialised world – assumed that this would happen when a body of professional experts were given the power and authority to devise and enforce appropriate blueprints. Then, in the Seventies, planners got a bad name. In Britain, national economic planning, for years ceaselessly battered by the stop-go waves, finally collapsed in a shambles of vacuous incomes policies and relentlessly rising unemployment, to be replaced by the strident invocation of non-planning and by apparently deliberate further increases in unemployment and massive de-industrialisation. In France, central indicative planning, which had seemed almost miraculously successful with the enormous economic growth of the Fifties and Sixties, was discredited when it proved unable to withstand the buffetings of inflation. A little belatedly, the Soviet Union discovered that its planned economy – once feared in the West (though admired by some) for its awesome efficiency as well as its achievement of equality – was ramshackle, corrupt, backward and thoroughly inefficient. The United States, which had not admitted to having any truck with planning since the days of the New Deal, beyond the level of freeways and land-use zoning, found that urban free ways were gumming up and that zoning had neither improved inner-city ghettoes nor prevented the endless spread of subtopia. Above all, planning, to the British public, meant town planning. This was widely perceived to have done little more than create instant new slums in unloved and unhabitable tower blocks, or stifle initiative with the red tape of regulations and restrictions.

Everywhere, the legendary prophets of the earlier 20th century, and the trusted guides who claimed they knew the way to the promised land after the holocaust of the Second World War, have turned into scapegoats for the economic mess and social disasters of the Eighties. Inquests on what went wrong have been legion. Economists, never much interested in institutions and even less interested in history, have concentrated on producing mathematical theories. Half-baked versions, dimly understood by politicians, have provided governments with a series of talismen from Public Sector Borrowing Requirements to exchange-rate target zones, via money supply targets and fiscal enterprise incentives – philosophers’ stones which have turned to dust, leaving interest rates as the sole means of communicating to the outside world the presumed intentions of the ‘unseen hand’. Regulation by the ‘unseen hand’ of the market – a market worked by traders of grossly unequal power and wealth – has been erected into a substitute for economic policy. The physical planners, meanwhile, who have never cared much for economic theories or grand economic policies, have tried to ignore all this. They have kept their heads down, hoping that, with a low profile and a less authoritarian touch, they might do a little good here or prevent a little harm there – and perhaps the non planning or anti-planning nightmare would one day go away. They have not thought it their province to think seriously about a planning theory for a free-market economy; nor have they made effective use of the fact that even a commitment to residual planning controls is incompatible with a whole-hearted return to laissez-faire.

Yet the sanctity of the Green Belt is a mainly South-Eastern shibboleth which has been more warmly defended by a vocal public opinion than has any article of faith in a free economy, even though that same public is quick enough off the mark in chasing the best bargain buys in the nearest hypermarket. The Green Belt is evidence not so much of public support for planning restrictions, because they promote the common good, as of the use of planning regulations to protect property values and private interests. It is the British counterpart of an American practice enthusiastically adopted in 1916. These manoeuvres illustrate the propensity of vested interests to appropriate the instruments of planning and incorporate them into the set of rules under which the property game is played.

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