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09/01/2018

Planning the urban future in 1960s Britain and all that...

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Arthur Harbinger-Grudge contemplating planning

A rueful Arthur Harbringer-Grudge recounts the loss of much that he once held dear. Chris Shepley reports

Arthur Harbringer-Grudge was President of the RTPI in the sixties, somewhere between Udolphus Aylmer Coates and Phipps Turnbull (both of whom actually existed, unlike Arthur).  As a visionary young mid-century planner, we thought he might have something useful to say. Now nearing 100, AHG (as he was known to his friends) spoke to The Planner on condition of strict anonymity. Sat in a vast armchair in a Surrey retirement home, he dredged what remained of his memory.

 “At my age”, he said, “you tend to lose things. I’ve been searching high and low for strategic planning but I can’t find it anywhere. And I think I had a regional policy somewhere – helping out those poor people in the North, you know – but it seems to have disappeared. I think the Parker Morris space standards may be up in the attic, and the Summer School may be out in the shed. I probably put the Infrastructure Planning Commission and the National Housing and Planning Advisory Unit in the recycling with the Regional Assemblies by mistake after they changed the day from Friday to Tuesday.

"There used to be a marvellous thing called the Department of the Environment"

“Council houses appeared to disappear a long time ago though I suppose they must be somewhere. Can’t really manage without them!”

The infectious chortle that marked his peak years filled the room. I asked him if he was still in contact with the real world. He took a sip of sherry, perked up, and attempted an analysis of modern administrative practice. 

“There used to be a marvellous thing called the Department of the Environment,” he recalled. “It dealt with planning and with all the other connected things, like the environment, which I suppose is why it was called what it was called, and heritage and things. Top-notch, as ministries go. What do we have now? Well, I’m not sure, and I don’t think anyone else is, but whatever it is, and I don’t know what it is or who’s in charge of it. Maybe somebody does. CLG you say? Sounds like a building society!”

AHG put away the pipe he had been smoking, and set fire to his jacket pocket; he opened the window to let out the smoke, then he continued.

“And when the old DoE had a policy it used to monitor it to see if it was working. It did what we used to call research – I think that’s all gone now – so we don’t know if things are working or not, which is very convenient for them. Fill that glass, will you?

“And I’ve been looking quite hard for the Chief Planning Officer and his staff. Can’t think what happened to them. Used to keep them safely but when I scouted around all I could find was a Director of Place, or a Head of Leftovers, who seemed vague about planning but had an MBA, so that’s all good, then.” 

I asked him whether he got out much. His carer apparently took him out weekly, or indeed weakly; but once again he couldn’t find what he was looking for. 

"Where are all the offices? Seem to have turned into houses. Where are all the houses? Seem to have turned into student flats"

“Where’s the town centre? Seems to have moved out to the ring road. Where are all the offices? Seem to have turned into houses. Where are all the houses? Seem to have turned into student flats. I can’t find any shops – only betting offices. Must have put them somewhere. And all the barns are second homes with huge windows.”

As he fell asleep I tiptoed from the room. But what I took from him was that the vision and idealism of his youth – which had been brightened by the 1947 Act, the New Towns, the National Parks and all the other accoutrements of a decent planning system, had faded. And that this was not just because he shared the gift of the elderly for donning rose-coloured spectacles when contemplating the past. As AHG knew very well, this was for real. 

Illustration | Oivind Hovland

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