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This island position: An interview with Janice Morphet

Words: Simon Wicks
Janice Morphet by Peter Searle

Janice Morphet, who will speak at the RTPI Planning Convention on 21 June, tells Simon Wicks how the UK seems to be a nation out of tune with Europe, the times and itself.

*NB this interview took place before the announcement of a General Election and was published in the May issue of The Planner

The past is rarely as we prefer to recall it. Take the ‘golden age’ of UK planning, when planners – empowered by 1947 Town and Country Planning Act – sought to rebuild a battered nation in the generation after the Second World War.

“I’m not sure I remember it as a brave new world,” Janice Morphet insists. “I grew up in Islington in the postwar period. There were still bombsites. A lot of places were filthy […] everywhere was damp. The buildings were damp and smelly.”

Postwar Britain was austere. But there was a sense of possibility. “Something in me thought it would be nice if they could be brought back as they were,” Morphet recalls.

“I’m not sure I remember it as a brave new world. There were still bombsites. Everywhere was damp.”

Planners, politicians and civil servants also had designs for improvement and achieved great things in the aftermath of war. But they also made mistakes and, in their pursuit of the new, they may too readily have forgotten the old in the towns and cities they were trying to improve. Morphet’s father, a coppersmith “interested in local history”, had taught her that this was something to savour.

“Before Columbia Market was demolished, he took me to see it and said it shouldn’t be demolished.” She continues: “We always used to watch [poet and broadcaster] John Betjeman on TV [between 1959 and 1976, Betjeman made eight documentaries for the BBC about British life and heritage]. It was just something I was familiar with, thinking it was important.”

Now a doyenne of British planning, Morphet has been a public sector planner in London and a county council chief executive in the East Midlands; a government policy adviser; an RTPI trustee and a noted academic. Her half-a-dozen degrees include a doctorate in politics and an MA in English Literature. She has seen and studied public policy, local government and national politics from the inside out.

She may well be a polymath. But she wears it lightly – there’s nothing stuffy here; instead, Janice Morphet is engaging, open, and, above all, humane. A concern with social justice appears to have underpinned her career from her early days as an assistant planner in Enfield to her forthcoming appearance at June’s RTPI Planning Convention, where she’ll be talking about innovations in local authority housebuilding.

But she’s also a sought-after European and British public policy expert whose new book – Beyond Brexit? – is a 130-page dissection of Brexit and its potential consequences. Morphet’s sense of history, though personal, is not merely nostalgic; it’s framed with detail and context. And when she is quietly damning about the forces that are driving the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, she is worth listening to.

“A colonial view”

Morphet argues that the beating heart of Brexit comes to us from an earlier age, one that was then shattered by war and the demotic forces it unleashed. The desire for escape from Europe springs, she implies, from a “colonial view of the world” that evokes a time of prestige and privilege.

But, just as the realities of postwar Britain included bombsites and “fractured footings”, so the realities of colonial Britain included heavy doses of poverty and exploitation. In the present, the unavoidable reality of Brexit Britain will be an exceedingly complex negotiation that we may be culturally ill-suited to conduct.

“We are going to find it very difficult in negotiation because our EU colleagues have much more experience of this”

Morphet makes the point that if were to leave the EU, regret it and reapply to join, the “first thing that would have to go” is the anomalous House of Lords. An English Parliament is, she says, “the dog that doesn’t bark” – meaning that the UK’s constitutional arrangements are basically a fudge. Westminster’s adversarial politics are at odds with the more collaborative approaches that have emerged in the proportionally representative democracies that pepper Europe. What we tend to consider a strength [the often-cited ‘strong government’] may turn out to be a weakness.

“Many have coalition governments,” says Morphet. “This has made them rather effective at making working arrangements and coming together around those things that they can. I think we are going to find it very difficult in negotiation because our EU colleagues have much more experience of this.”

Morphet argues that our politicians and media have for decades maintained what amounts to a systematic fallacy about the EU. The fault lies partly, she suggests, with civil servants for whom it has been more convenient to indulge politicians’ whimsical belief in Britain’s ongoing greatness than to engage in the complex task of introducing our political classes to the complexities, realities and benefits of Europeanism.

“The media don’t know anything about the EU,” she says. “Interviews [in the build-up to the EU referendum] showed such ignorance of the way the thing works. That’s been a sustained thing… In France, for example, Le Monde typically has two whole pages on different days about EU processes.”

Beyond Brexit? then, is an effort to generate an informed discussion. “Really what I wanted to do was set something out about the options. I wanted also to write a bit about what would be the same [post-Brexit], what would be lost and what would be foregone.

“I wanted to bring people back to the present, to consider that the European community isn’t completely mesmerised with the UK and that they are discussing things now which will come in the next programme which we won’t be a part of.”

Thus we encounter another obstacle with Britain’s fudged constitutional arrangements – the promotion of short-termism within our winner-takes-all electoral system. Further, without a written constitution, the manner of Brexit is entirely at the whim of whichever party happens to be pulling the strings.

We are speaking before Theresa May announced a snap General Election. Morphet speculates on whether the Prime Minister is playing a clever game but expresses concern that she has “gone far further to the edge that anyone imagined last year”. She confesses to being baffled by the voting of older people in the referendum, but understands that some feel Britain is in decline. “I go along with the analysis of people who were not quite so well educated who somehow have this notion of Britain being not as great as it was and other countries catching up and overtaking us.”

This, combined with the dismantling of support for people who live “at the margins”, has created vulnerable constituencies who are ripe for exploitation by an “unholy alliance” of “Brexit bullies” in politics, business and the media, she argues. But even they are beginning to temper their views in the face of the realities of scale, complexity and potential losses of Brexit. Recent council by-election results in strongly Brexit-voting areas have hinted that the public is moderating its view, too.

So there we have it: a nation out of tune with the present; out of tune with Europe; out of tune with itself; a hitherto United Kingdom on the verge of losing something that Morphet, the planner, regards as an essential. “It’s partly money [that will be lost],” she says. “But it’s also the strategic thinking that people haven’t put a price on.”

“It is time to wake up from this island position,” she declares.

Austerity - the mother of innovation

“One of the drivers for housebuilding is homelessness, which is costing councils £2 million a week,” Janice Morphet explains. “It galls a lot of councils to pay rent to private landlords who are renting back to them former council flats sold under Right to Buy.

“Some councils are building, such as Barking and Dagenham, some are buying off the open market. Then the council is still paying rent for the homeless but they’re paying it back to themselves.

“Because of the change in local government finance in 2020 lots of councils want to develop income streams and property is a means to do that. For example, mixed developments with some retail space generate council tax, rents and business rates, and they’re assets.

“We’ve had two changes which have made some difference. The first is the powers given to local authorities under the 2011 Localism Act sections 1-7. Councils can now operate on the same legal basis as individuals – for example, the council can open companies or a bank.

"Currently I’ve got 175 local authorities engaging in some kind of provision – though not all are building"

“Second, you have the new internal financial reporting standards over the whole of the OECD. Now there’s just one set of accounts (there were previously two) and the accounting framework is the same as the private sector. So partnership will be easier and there’s much more interest in return on capital employed.

“Currently I’ve got 175 local authorities engaging in some kind of provision – though not all are building. For example, Islington and Manchester are using pension funds. Enfield and Barking and Dagenham have big loans from the European Investment Bank. Islington and Barnet are setting up registered providers and lots of councils have done PFI, such as Kirklees.

“On the other hand, Barnet, Croydon and Birmingham, for example, have created their own housing companies. You get a loan from the Public Works Loans Board at a low rate and lend that money to the housing company at a lower rate than a bank. The company builds for rent or sale and buys all its services from the council. The money from sales and rents goes into the company and directly back to the council, which owns the company.

“You’ve got the powers, so you have to push because you’ve got no money. Austerity is the mother of innovation. They have had to find new ways and it seems to me that councils are much more open and supportive.”

Read more about the research Janice Morphet is conducting into local authority housebuilding on behalf of the RTPI and the National Policy Forum.

Territorial equity

If there’s been a common thread that runs through Morphet’s life and work, it would probably be a consciousness of “territorial equity”. This she defines roughly as “thinking about access to services. It’s around overcoming the disadvantage of distance. For example, broadband issues. It’s about the quality of public services for everyone.”

It’s a core EU principle, enshrined in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty along with social and economic equity as a guide for policy and, significantly, land use. Morphet cites the current government’s commitment to extending grammar schools as an example of a “sticking plaster policy” that ignores the principle of territorial equity. “If you look at those areas which are most economically disadvantaged, they generally have poorer public transport and poorer services.”

Potentially the biggest loss of the UK’s departure from the EU will be the continent-wide spatial planning that is underpinned by the Lisbon Treaty’s principles of equity. The “territorial cohesion” that emerges from joint spatial planning provides a framework for EU member states to integrate policies in a way that contributes to the overall development and competitiveness of the EU.

In short, the principles of cohesion and equity ensure that money and resources go where they are most needed. “It still amazes me no end about Cornwall,” says Morphet, alluding once more to the ignorance of the EU and its work that accompanied the referendum campaigns.

“One day every council estate was new and everyone thought it was lovely. How did it go from that to being a sink estate?”

Her own experience of growing up in postwar Islington during a period of gentrification and then working for a decade in Tower Hamlets has shown that even a small investment in place can shift perceptions. “When Eastenders started [in 1985], people in Tower Hamlets were thrilled,” she recalls. “Similarly when St Katharine Docks were opened – again it was the same feeling that somehow the place had become worth visiting.”

East London at that time was a “last resort” place to which people living in council accommodation tended to be “shifted”. People with skills had moved out, others had been decanted during slum clearance and the filling of new towns. Forty years after the event, railings taken from churches to melt down for wartime armaments had yet to be replaced. Disused buildings and spaces were strewn with weeds.

Local authority estates, swept into being on a wave of utopianism, were in decline – a failure not so much of intention as management and maintenance. It was a failure to value and invest any more than absolutely necessary in the lives and concerns of the people who needed that investment most

“One day every council estate was new and everyone thought it was lovely,” Morphet stresses. “How did it go from that to being a sink estate or somewhere there’s a lot of agitation and crime? Why wasn’t it managed? Why that move from being perfectly ok on day one?

“Management policy? What happened when the first signs of problems came about? Was it the lettings policy? Places don’t just become like that. They happen over time and it’s our responsibility to be alert to that.

“If you are in public policy of planning, part of your role is to say ‘What can we do to make that better?’.”

In 1980s Tower Hamlets, initiatives such as community gardening and replacing church railings began to alter the tone. “Gradually the fabric looked more calm and more finished, and there’s a subliminal benefit to that.”

Slowly – especially as the economic powerhouse of London began to gather steam – East London became a place that you might consider visiting, or even living [and those early EastEnders episodes dealt with this new phenomenon explicitly through the character of middle-class graphic designer Colin Russell. Serendipitously, Michael Cashman - the actor who played Colin Russell - was a Labour MEP, from 1999-2014].

However, regeneration which preferences the haves over the have-nots, combined with the shutting down of local authority housebuilding, has created a crisis of affordability and of access to the city and its services. In the early 21st century, the principle of territorial equity is falling apart.

It’s this that is driving Morphet’s latest research project, looking at the how enterprising local authorities are addressing the shortage in affordable housing (see 'Austerity, the mother of innovation', above). A blend of austerity politics, policy shifts and the absolute necessity of becoming self-funding is driving a more entrepreneurial approach to local authority housing provision than we have seen before.

“If you talk to private housebuilders they’ll say they don’t want to build more houses,” Morphet explains. “They’re comfortable building 140-150,000 a year. Basically they don’t feel that they want to or have the capacity to build the volume of housing the government has identified. And they don’t pretend to do that.

“We do need new entrants into the market and some councils are very frustrated.” She goes on: “They have taken a rather interventionist view by doing what they can do themselves and also trying to get others to do things

Everywhere somewhere

For a woman who is “technically” retired, Janice Morphet is exceedingly busy. There’s a recently completed English Literature PhD [focusing on the depictions of working class characters in London in postwar fiction], abook about Brexit, research into housebuilding.

Husband Robin and daughter Charlotte are also planners – Robin working at UCL as a researcher, Charlotte following in her mother’s footsteps at the London Borough of Waltham Forest.

Morphet smiles when I suggest that she’s creating a planning dynasty, pointing out that she had no idea Charlotte intended to become a planner until the day she announced her intention to do a planning MA following a first degree in art history.

“My strapline is really making everywhere somewhere”

Like her mother before her, Charlotte is part of a new generation growing up in a London that is markedly different and yet the same. There’s still the same collision of values which one might characterise – very broadly – as a colonial view of the world compared to a more egalitarian one.

But where Morphet Sr came of age in a world in which there was a consensus around the role of the public sector in society, nowadays the boundaries between public and private are confusingly blurred. Each, she suggests, can learn from the other in tackling the territorial challenges post by a Britain moving irresistibly towards Brexit.

“Planners have a responsibility to be proactive in terms of understanding what the issues are and being engaged, either directly or indirectly, in finding the solutions. It doesn’t mean the planner knows best – we have to listen and work with partners, and you can’t solve everything. Nevertheless it’s important that planners have a more proactive approach in the public sector.

“In the private sector there probably needs to be a greater understanding of the width and breadth of these opportunities – of working with the public sector as local authorities get towards thinking about their asset management rather like the great estates rather than the Crown Estate. There’s a desperate need for new and different skills.”

Some things don’t change, however. At least one of planning’s eternal verities ought to remain untouched by Brexit, in principle if not in practice: “My strapline is really making everywhere somewhere.”

Beyond Brexit? is available from Policy Press

Janice Morphet will be speaking at the RTPI Planning Convention on 21 June

Photography | Peter Searle

CV Highlights: Janice Morphet

Born: Welwyn Garden City

Education: William Tyndale Primary School, Islington (primary); Dame Alice Owen’s Girls School, Islington (secondary); BSc Sociology, Birmingham City (1969); Town Planning Diploma, Westminster (1973); MA Management Studies, Greenwich (1979); MA Politics and Government, London Metropolitan (1980); PhD Public policy and politics, Bristol (1992); MA English Literature, Open University (2008)


1969-1971 Planning assistant, London Borough of Enfield

1971-1972 Assistant research officer, Department of Environment

1972-1974 Senior planning officer, Surrey County Council

1974-1975 Senior planning officer, LB of Islington

1975-1986 Various positions at LB of Tower Hamlets

1986-1990 Professor and head of Department of Planning and Landscape, Birmingham Polytechnic [now Birmingham City University]

1990-1994 Director of technical services, Woking Borough Council

1994-1996 Secretary, SERPLAN

1996-2000 Chief executive, Rutland County Council

2000-2005 Senior adviser on local government modernisation and e-government, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

2003-5 Visiting senior research fellow, Bartlett School of Planning UCL

2005- present Visiting Professor, Bartlett School of Planning, UCL

2006-2010 Member of RTPI General Assembly

2006-2012 Member, Olympic Delivery Authority planning decisions committee

2008-2010 Trustee, RTPI

2011- 2012 Member, DCLG/UK sounding board on implementation of Territorial Impact Assessment (TIA)

2013 How Europe shapes British public policy published by Policy Press

2017 Beyond Brexit? published https://policypress.co.uk/beyond-brexit

2017 Research: When local authorities build housing again (National Policy Forum and RTPI)