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Lesson of the master: An interview with David Rudlin

Words: Simon Wicks

As a director of URBED, chair of the Academy of Urbanism and winner of the 2014 Wolfson Prize for economics, David Rudlin is one of our most accomplished planners and urbanists. He tells Simon Wicks where modern planning is getting it wrong.

It was a tantalising suggestion – that we might need to wind the clock back to before the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, English planning’s year zero.

Its radical shift towards nationalisation of development rights had the best of intentions, but a host of unintended consequences. It made land a scarce resource and planning an adversarial occupation. It laid the foundation for market dominance by big developers and ended emphatically the era of the ‘master developer’, the holder of both land and a singular vision who had hitherto driven development of our towns and cities.

Appreciation of this top-down approach to development seemed jarring coming from someone so contemporary and democratic in outlook. Yet David Rudlin, along with URBED partner Nicholas Falk, had reinvented the garden city in winning the 2014 Wolfson Economics Prize. Was he plotting a route out of a planning impasse when I heard him speak at the 2017 Young Planners Conference?

We meet at Brentford Lock in West London, a canalside development that Rudlin masterplanned a decade ago. It is smart, civilised and well-arranged in an almost Scandinavian way that is, I observe, fast becoming the new London vernacular.

He smiles and explains how his scheme differs from others, making observations of his own about how well he feels it is bedding into its environment. It’s unusual, I learn, for a masterplanner to see their vision realised – the likes of Rudlin work to longer timescales than most.

Perhaps that’s why he is so generous with his time, expanding at length on the 1947 Planning Act, master developers, land value capture and the demise of design sensibility among planners.

Getting better

“The whole point of the 1947 Act was that value generated by development would return to the state and be used to fund infrastructure,” he says when I remind him of his comments.

“That was a fundamental part of the act. On three occasions the Conservatives repealed the betterment acts. The last one was the Community Land Act, got rid of when Thatcher came in. Since then we’ve not had any way of capturing value.”

‘Betterment’, in this vision, is critical for a planning system to serve the public interest. Yet the English system turns developable land into a scarce commodity that leaps outlandishly in value when consented.

“The government thinks the problem with planning is that it’s bureaucratic and over-controlling. But it is that way because that’s the way the system makes it”

Bind this prospective gain to a discretionary, flexible approach to planning and we end up with an excessively adversarial and legalistic form of planning that, in turn, has created a market in which just a few large developers have the resources to work the system. One way or another, most potential betterment is lost, to landowner and/or developer.

“The government thinks the problem with planning is that it’s bureaucratic and over-controlling,” Rudlin asserts. “But it is that way because that’s the way the system makes it.”

“The last thing housebuilders want is a simplified planning process. Their value is generated by the planning system. We end up with a default output that was never planned.”

In a “sensible system”, he argues, Crossrail would have been funded by the uplift in value of land around stations – “the way most of the world would do it.”

“Sensible”, in Rudlin’s world, might be more evident in France or the Netherlands, where development zones are governed by clearly agreed rules. Much of the discretion, and thus dispute, is taken out of the system with the way cleared for master developers to prepare sites using a plot-based approach to design and building that can support a wider range of smaller developers in the market.

The Dutch system, notably, puts a cap on land value inflation. The result is more money invested in design and build, and more gathered in for community infrastructure.

There is much we can learn, particularly about how master developer and masterplanner can work together to create “a framework in which all sorts of people can get involved”.

Can similar outcomes be achieved within the dysfunctional English system?

“It’s asking too much for our planning system to be reformed to take that on, but I think that you can work within it,” Rudlin observes.

Compulsory purchase, or the threat of it, could be used more by local authorities to assemble land, he explains. From here, it’s a matter of appointing a master developer (which could also be the local authority) and a masterplanner and you’re on your way.

URBED’s Wolfson Prize entry illustrates another way in which the uplift in land value can be contained and captured. Here, the ‘unearned increment’ is hooked through a deal struck with landowners that ensures that they receive a fair return plus an interest in a ‘garden city trust’.

This trust looks an awful lot like the cooperatives Rudlin has revisited time and again across four decades, from the founding of Manchester’s Homes for Change cooperative housing association through to URBED itself.

Career highlights: path of an urbanist

Born: 1961, Birmingham Educated: Manchester University 1979-84, 
BA and MA in town planning

  • 1985-90: Graduate/senior planner, Manchester City Council
  • 1987-96: Founding secretary,  Homes for Change cooperative
  • 1990–Now: URBED: Project manager Little Germany Action Plan; Manchester project manager; principal and director (2006)
  • 1994: Co-author of Rebuilding the City: A Guide to Development in Hulme
  • 2000: Masterplan for Brighton’s New England Quarter
  • 2001–Now: Visiting lecturer in urban design, University of Manchester
  • 2014: (with Nicholas Falk) Winner, Wolfson Economics Prize
  • 2017–Now: Chair, Academy of Urbanism

​​​​​​The climax city

A principle of equity courses through Rudlin’s work and conversation. Quality, too.

Why shouldn’t everyone, after all, be able to live in good-quality housing and environments?

He seems to have an almost artisanal relationship to the craft of masterplanning; it’s about finding the intrinsic ‘grain’ of a place and bringing it out. He uses the analogy of ‘the climax state’ of the natural environment in a blog and forthcoming book (Climax City) which explore how cities grow. Left alone, anywhere in the UK would eventually reach its ‘climax state’ of mixed broadleaf woodland. Rudlin argues that cities also have a climax state, where the course of their growth – their ‘grain’ – is tuned to the needs the societies that create them.

“Then planning came along and thought ‘That’s all terrible’ and ‘We need to reform that’. But in recognising it [the need to change dysfunctional urban environments], they didn’t recognise the process.”

Change the rules and the result unfolds in an entirely different way – an intriguing idea that makes me wonder where his fascination with cities began. Born in 1961, Rudlin was brought up in Birmingham in an era of massive city centre redevelopment. But it wasn’t this that captured his imagination.

The bus to and from home in Hall Green would take him “right along the Stratford Road and it’s six miles of continuous shops. You go through the different communities like the Afro-Caribbean, the Pakistani communities, and so on”.

“Trying to design a masterplan without urbanism is like trying to design a garden without horticulture. You don’t understand the fundamental things that make plants grow or thrive.”

“For me on the bus, all the roads going off in each direction looked like the city was going on forever. I thought I was riding through a Dickensian city. I didn’t know the Stratford Road was exceptional and it was quite dull if you went to other side. This idea of what a city is… endless and exciting.”

A love of visual arts was pointing towards architecture as a subject of study, but a careers master advised that his maths was too weak. So he studied planning instead, in Manchester, where he has remained.

Even so, Rudlin talks a lot about architects and the need for an aesthetic sense in planning. The loss of design from planning education is a bugbear, not least because it leaves the door open to those with design training but no planning qualifications to dominate design discussions and decisions.

“To me, [architects] do it from a completely different perspective, which starts with the design of the building and works outwards to the plan. Whereas a masterplan works from the neighbourhood inwards to the plot. The plot then defines what buildings go onto it.

“Trying to design a masterplan without urbanism is like trying to design a garden without horticulture. You don’t understand the fundamental things that make plants grow or thrive.”

But the planning profession has “given up” teaching masterplanning, he laments. At Manchester University in the 1980s “we had design studios where at least half the work we were doing was drawing masterplans”. Planning, though, became more “sociological and theoretical”, more process driven. It lost some of its craft and character.

It's something this masterplanner is keen to revive as a visiting professor at the University of Manchester. “The planning school now has urban design lecturers, and they do urban design projects. You’re teaching planners to recognise a good masterplan when they see one rather than to do it themselves still.”

Going with the grain

Though he harks back to elements of the past in the fundamental principles of his craft, Rudlin’s sense of how the world can look and feel is entirely contemporary. He talks about creating a “richness” of place “built for the modern age” that integrates contemporary architecture and design into the “plot-based process”.

“What I want to do is create a system where the good becomes the default. Get the process of masterplanning right and good is the default. Then you can make stuff exceptional by applying your creativity. You shouldn’t need two billion, you shouldn’t need a [Ebenezer] Howard. But because of the system we have, you do.”

“What I want to do is create a system where the good becomes the default. Get the process of masterplanning right and good is the default."

Rudlin highlights the challenges and choices made at Brentford Lock. He’s pleased with how it’s growing into its space, but considers Brighton’s New England Quarter, beside the station, as the fullest extant expression of URBED’s work. Again, it evinces an urbanism that is smart, civilised, almost continental. It’s urbane, rather like Rudlin himself.

Rudlin tells me about the ‘Three Rs’ of rediscovery, repair and renewal that frame the work of his practice. A good masterplan draws out what is implicitly in a place and finds a natural expression for it. It unearths the grain.

Finally, he reminds me again how masterplanners operate on a longer timescale than most – years, decades, lifetimes.

That’s how long it takes to grow a city. Just change the parameters, uncover the grain, and the rest will follow.

The problem with British urbanism

“Bordeaux is a place I go to a lot. It’s quite small – only 600,000 people – but the area of urbanity in Bordeaux is 10 times bigger than Manchester. It’s that type of apartment-based, street-based development, and it used to be the whole city. It now has suburbs, so it’s gone beyond that.

“Whereas in Britain we have a tiny city centre surrounded by what used to be the inner city, which has generally been revived quite a lot, and now is surrounded by suburbs. You can walk across Manchester City centre in 15 minutes. It takes an hour to walk across Bordeaux.

“We should be urbanising the inner city as opposed to squeezing everything into a tiny city centre.”

“We’re squeezing a lot of stuff into a small patch of land. We should be urbanising the inner city as opposed to squeezing everything into a tiny city centre. 

“The theory is that because we had the Industrial Revolution we lost faith in cities and with good reason because they were horrible for a time. Therefore we became a suburban nation because of that, in the way the French never did. The French have suburbanised quite recently and if you go to French suburbs they’re actually awful. But they stayed in their cities much longer than we did and part of that is the middle classes aspired to the apartment rather than the villa in the suburb.”

Simon Wicks is deputy editor of The Planner

Climax City: Masterplanning and the Complexity of Urban Growth by David Rudlin and Shruti Hermani will be published by RIBA Publishing in November

Photography | Peter Searle