Simon Jenkins on the hopes and fears of Colin Buchanan
There are certain things at which we British are supposed to be very good. They include making tea, retreating from Empire, building Rolls-Royces and, among those who care, town and country planning. We. built Bath and Belgravia. We ' invented ' the new Towns. Most important of all, we voted Labour in 1945 and thus ensured the passage two years later of the Town and Country Planning Act. Where there was smog, we cleared it. Where slums developed, we pulled them down. We declared green belts and conservation areas. We passed laws to punish (albeit gently) those who demolished historic buildings. Bit by bit, planning extended its grasp until no one could do anything without first getting costly and lengthy permission from someone else. The British are now probably the most planned and restricted nation this side of the iron curtain. And considering the desperately small island on which we live, I doubt if many people would have it otherwise — at least in principle.
But what of the practice?
Professor Colin Buchanan has in many ways had an enviable career. As a civil servant, then as a consultant and now as an academic, he has travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles, enquiring, permitting, preventing, adjudicating, advising on the changing appearance of town and countryside. He has been in a unique position to immerse himself in the character of Britain's great cities and has played a considerable part in the development of many of them.
On a few rare occasions, he has raised his head from his desk to give us the benefit of his wisdom. In 1963, he published a Ministry of Transport report on Traffic in Towns — setting out the now famous principles of traffic separation — which became an instant best-seller. Last year he earned near-canonisation among environmental lobbyists by coming out in favour of the Foulness site against the majority of his colleagues on the Roskill enquiry into a third London airport. And now he has drawn on all this experience in his three Chichele Lectures.* They contain his assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of British planning since the War and his hopes and fears for the future.
Perhaps it is unfair to judge too critically what is, after all, no more than a transcript of three talks to a lay audience. Yet so rarely do leading members of important professions engage in public self-criticism, particularly under so portentous a title that we might reasonably expect great things from Sir Colin in this volume. We do not get them.
The first of the lectures takes the form of an account of the development of the local authority planning machinery in Britain since the last war. Sir Colin rightly points out that the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act was one of the most revolutionary constitutional innovations of this century. Provision after provision vester in the new authorities quite unprecedented powers over the rights of private individuals. The discretion given them to decide what a man might do with his property were so wide that most local authorities still have not had the courage to make full use of it, preferring to take refuge in the letter rather than the spirit of many of its sections. And the Act has had an immense impact on the thinking of all concerned with the environment ever since.
In his second lecture, Sir Colin attempts to draw up a balance sheet of the successes and failures of this story. Planning, he admits, has been an expensive operation. Apart from the vast bureaucracy it has created, there has been the astronomical cost of delay in development while planning applications are processed. Insofar as it has distorted for community purposes the normal operation of the market in land and property and thus affected market patterns of industrial location, it must also be considered to have been a break on the country's rate of economic growth. Within planning's own terms, it has not always come up with the right answers — the lack of co-ordination between road building and, other aspects of town development, for instance, has been disastrous. The machinery set up by the Act of 1947 has been appallingly slow in its operations: 25 years after the War there is still not a development plan in operation for the London region. And the mounting public dissatisfaction with so much of planning's output has shown that it has not kept fully abreast of public opinion. "A machine firing on some of its cylinders," is how Sir Colin describes it.
But then there have been some successes as well. There were those dazzling jewels of the post-war generation of planners, the New Towns, criticism of which is still regarded as somehow sacrilegious. There were the undoubted achievements in urban house-building after the Blitz. There has been an attention to the quality of urban design found in few countries abroad. The wdrst consequences of urban sprawl, as so horribly manifest in modern Tokyo or New York, have been in part avoided. We have a good record of pollution control, of nature protection and of architectural conservation (so Sir Colin maintains). And for all its imperfections, we have now evolved a planning machine which, considering the vast sums of money it is controlling or releasing, is remarkably free from corruption — at least when compared with similar machines in other countries. All in all, Sir Colin concludes, "it is a very curious machine . . . slow and cumbersome, but I think it is essentially fair and humane." The verdict, on balance, is favourable.
From a man who has devoted most of his career to working within this system, this is hardly surprising. Yet there are others who, not just on reading Sir Colin's own balance sheet but on simply walking round Britain with their eyes open, might have liked greater reassurance. Set aside planning's more mundane functions like safety control or sewerage, and it can often seem wholly unrelated to what people nowadays want to see from those responsible for the changing appearance of their environmental control. Indeed it can often seem like no more than the prejudices of a handful of over-ambitious local councillors and reactionary local officials injected very spasmodically into a largely uncontrolled property market.
It is not the use but the misuse of the planning machinery which is responsible for the mounting public disquiet about planning which Sir Colin only dimly discerns. It is the provincial townscape pock-marked with ugly comprehensive redevelopment schemes dreamed up out of unholy alliances of private developers and local councillors eager for monuments to themselves. It is the dPsolation of great swathes of Liverpool and Manchester and Birmingham and the dislocation of millions of their inhabitants to conform to statistical housing norms of quite staggering insensitivity. It is the ruthless excision of the character of so many country towns, which used to be the particular pride of this country subtly evolved over centuries of local history yet destroyed in a week by a boy in a council bulldozer. These are not just the growing pains of a new system gradually sneezing itself into life. They are signs that something has gone seriously wrong.
It is with Sir Colin's last lecture on his hopes and fears for the future that we begin to see what this is.
Colin Buchanan, understandably in view of the variety of characters with whom he must have had to deal, is a man who has developed an impressive array of prejudices about his subject. Since nothing is more suspect than a professional man who hides them, he deserves full credit for setting them out here for all to read. As far as the future state of Britain is concerned, he says, he wants to see a far greater awareness of nature in our surroundings. "Planning," he affirms, "is not for people, it is for all life." He is worried about the growing polarisation in cities between the public housing sector — and the areas in towns where it predominates — and the private one. He is concerned that the level of public taste in design is not high enough sadly repeating that most meaningless of cliches: "We shall not get anything better till we deserve it "). He pleads for planning to be given a chance, to be taken more seriously and not greeted with the cycnicism it so often is. He "trembles for loneliness and isolation " in this crowded isle. He calls out to his colleagues to let every man possess a shed. And he says that planning's function is not to " dictate the style of life of people," but to " secure the . . . basic decencies of civilised existence."
So William Cobbett rides again! But where on earth does all this get us?
Planning is a very young profession and should still have the excitement of youth on its cheeks. In the event it has become as tight-knit and introverted a calling as law or accountancy — and much more so even than its elder sister architecture. It is now under a growing threat from its dissatisfied clients — namely the community at large. And this threat is being reflected among many younger planners who feel passionately that their elders are totally out of touch with the new community role the profession is being called upon to play. Yet Colin Buchanan dismisses the current development of public participation as little more than a passing inconvenience which must not be allowed to get in the way of "responsibilities traditionally entrusted to elected representatives." And he confesses that the dissatisfaction of young people with existing environmental controls merely " bewilders " him. He is appalled that young people have "an acceptance and apparent positive enjoyment of squalor, almost it would seem for its nwn sake." Might it not have come within the scope of these lectures to ask why?
It is both surprising and a little frightening that someone in Sir Colin's position can have so little ' feel ' for the new context in which his colleagues are having to work. To take just one local example: Westminster City Council's recent plan for Piccadilly Circus (with which Sir Cohn was once himself involved) possessed what he would doubtless have regarded as an impeccable planning pedigree. It was bright, clean, unsqualid., with full pedestrian separation and coordination between the many elements involved in the planning process. It is now dead, killed at great cost and after much public acrimony because the public simply would not buy it — and the planning machine has not yet evolved any mechanism for "building in" any public response. Whether this sort of process is beneficial to the community or not, it is now an established fact. We are seeing it over London's road programme, over the Covent Garden redevelopment plans, over Sir Colin's own proposalS for Bath and Edinburgh and we shall be seeing it with city development plans all over the country. Without seeking to overdramatise the point, I can only say that people are now rising up in revolt against twenty-five years of Sir Colin's "fair and humane planning machine." And because planning is a highly political activity, people through their politicians have it within their power to clog up this machine utterly with enquiries and commissions and revisions and redrafts. Planning is now in danger of becoming even more timewasting and expensive and inept than it has been in the past.
The only way out of this situation is for the planner himself, and the men reliant on his advice, to become far more openminded. They must give up the patronising concern for the 'condition of, the people,' which runs like glue through the pages of Sir Colin's lectures, and find new methods of seeking response to their actions and suggestions from those who are the recipients of their wisdom — or the victims of it. This is becoming a terribly important matter for planners and for politicians alike. And Colin Buchanan has ignored it.