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Planning’s second century needs to learn from the errors of its first

Much of 20th century planning and development has proven unsustainable, argues David Williams - the new mantra should be maintain, adapt, reuse

The first century of ‘formal planning’ was largely dominated by market-led suburbia and utopian redevelopment. Neither has improved the performance of our towns and cities.

In the 20th century, suburban sprawl increased the total urban area sixfold when the population only rose by 65 per cent. Instead of compact cities protecting us against extremes of climate, suburbs have exacerbated the climate catastrophe with cars replacing public transport.

Utopian planning partly derives from Le Corbusier’s schemes to develop ‘buildings for the future’. His scheme to destroy and rebuild the whole of inner Paris with slabs and tower blocks displays his manic vision – only fully realised perhaps in China.

But our own ‘Big Brother’ needlessly destroyed whole neighbourhoods as slums.During the 1970s, ‘general improvement areas’ (GIAs) saved many remaining terraced neighbourhoods, with their local economies and social life. Unfortunately, after 1979, these were quietly dropped. Perhaps developers and housebuilders persuaded the government that GIAs ‘distorted’ the market.

Ironically, slum clearance required compulsory purchase. And with double irony, our current ‘urban regeneration’ programme is destroying those estates that replaced the ‘slums’ – also with CPOs.

None of this is sustainable. For its second century, ‘formal planning’ should be more pragmatic and largely local.

“For its second century, ‘formal planning' should be more pragmatic, largely local and absolutely sustainable”

Instead of trying to build 300,000 new homes a year, when only 100,000 are needed, focus on housing the homeless and increasing supply of social housing with less disruptive and cheaper conversions and smaller infills.

Instead of ‘wasting’ perhaps £40 billion on the national regeneration programme, let local authorities use that money to tackle waiting lists, support local builders and social housing providers, set up local rent tribunals and tax second homes, etc.

And instead of ‘creating place’, planners should focus on improving existing heritage. Not just listed buildings and conservation areas, but the whole built fabric. Our buildings and streets are a resource that we should maintain, adapt and reuse rather than rebuild. Yet conservation is charged 20 per cent VAT, while new urban megaliths pay zero. Sustainable? Think local. Act local.

David Williams MRTPI is a freelance planning and regeneration specialist

Image credit | iStock


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