Why Plan?

by robertmcnicol

Hi both. Sorry for the lack of posts. Two predictable excuses – the job, which means that when I come home, the last thing I want to do is write about planning; and the dissertation, whereby when I come home I have to write about planning. So unfortunately you’re both getting ignored. One other, less predictable, reason. My previous usual schtick was to talk about a new building in the vicinity and critique it. But since I work in the local authority planning department, this might be a little inappropriate. Fine for when I’m in different places, but not here in Brightonandhove.

So I thought for today’s post I’d take a step back from the specific, and look at some basics. A few weeks back, Ben Goldacre – a writer and man I otherwise admire – wrote some tweets that showed a (I think deliberatively) provocative attitude to planning. Goldacre was ostensibly praising the work of George Osborne, taking at face value the Chancellor’s claims to be getting rid of all sorts of unnecessary planning guidance. This isn’t going to be an analysis of Goldacre’s misreading of Osborne’s posturing – I’m no expert on the mind of either men. Rather, what I want to start to do is put together a basic, lay-person’s guide to why we plan (and why we plan in the way we do, in this country at least). I’m not sure whether this will be more of a myth-buster or more of a philosophy. Maybe bits of both.

Green Belts don’t protect the countryside

When trying to understand what planning is for, green belts are a great place to start. Green belts don’t protect the countryside. Well, they do – but that’s secondary. One thing people know about the greenbelt is that it’s land you cannot – must not – build on. That’s not strictly the case, but we’ll go with it for now. The more important thing about greenbelts is that they are a tool to curtail urban sprawl. They’re not just there to stop us building all over our green and pleasant land; they’re there to make sure that our cities remain cities.

The first green belt was introduced back in 1938 to deal with the enormous pressure on London to expand into endless suburbia and what were known as ribbon developments on its metropolitan periphery (Herbert Morrison‘s your man on this one). The act allowed local authorities to enter into covenants with landowners preventing development, or to buy land for the purpose, thus halting the sprawl. Other parts of the country got green belts later.

1947 – The Year Planners Saved the Nation from Itself

It’s worth noting that the local authorities had no right just to say no to development in the way they do now – that tool was only brought in with the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Basically everything before ’47 is considered (for planners) a sort of pre-history, a dangerous time when anyone could build anything; and there was a pressing fear that if we the heroic planners hadn’t intervened, then you idiotic capitalists would have smeared the nation in semis.

So. Back to green belts. They’re there to stop cities fractalling away into enless culs-de-sac. Why is that important? The sell was – and still is – protection of the contryside (not just protection of the greenbelt – there are many more important bits of countryside outside green belts than in them). But equally important is the need to maintain cities that are operable. With sprawl public transit becomes exponentially expensive so the relationship between employment sites (for cities this usually means city centre) and residential becomes untenable. Then there’s the other infrastructure – schools, fire stations, hospitals and so forth. Below certain housing densities these cease to be economically viable. The green belt, if you like, is a tool to stop your child walking seven miles to school.

Yeah, but there’s a housing crisis

The country is desperately short of housing. This is not the same, although is related to, the house price bubble; we simply don’t have enough places for people to live. Goldacre’s tweets suggests that the solution is to allow building in the countryside (of which he considers us to have plenty). I agree with him, and so would Herbert Morrison and Patrick Abercrombie (who wrote the County of London and Greater London Plans of 1943 and 44). The green belt is designed to prevent the sprawl of a city; but you need to build somewhere, and the tails to the heads of the greenbelt is the new town.

Basildon, Bracknell, Crawley, Harlow, Hemel Hempstead. (Arguably, of course, Milton Keynes is the most famous new town, although that wasn’t designated for another 20 years.) These were outside of the greenbelt, and designed to take the overspill from overcrowded London. This fantastic animation pretty much explains everything I’ve said but in a much more entertaining way:


So that’s pretty much why we have greenbelts and new towns. Although we’ve not really had any new towns in 45 years.

Of course, it’s all much more complicated than this. So if you want to do further investigations, you may want to look at, and I might try to write about,:

  • New Labour’s ecotowns
  • Regional Spatial Strategies and the politicisation of housing targets
  • New Right planning theories, and letting the market control land
  • New towns as victims of the 1960s Modernist planner backlash