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Back to the future

How the Garden City ideal is driving a new beginning for the planning movement.

TCPA Policy Director reflects on the first year of the Tomorrow 125 project and rediscovering the roots of planning.

Early January is not the most obvious of time to write about a hopeful future, but after dark times for planning there is the first spark of renewal.  That spark has emerged from a year-long exploration of the founding principles of UK planning, an exploration that ended in a powerful reconnection with the origins of the planning movement and its relevance for the 21st century.

This was not an outcome that we might have expected given how far the reputation of planning, particularly in England, has fallen over the last dozen years. This is not simply a matter of what Westminster has chosen to do but reflects a much wider malaise in which the planning project has been successfully positioned as a problem not as a solution to the key challenges facing society. Planning is now largely what the deregulation lobby always wanted, a light touch land licencing process which cannot uphold the long-term public interests.   Planners do what they can despite the reforms, not because of them.  This is all a universe away from the positive vision and ambition that inspired the UK planning movement.  Most importantly, it’s a very long way from meeting the real needs of communities for decent homes and healthy, thriving lives.

The point where the decline of an idea and the practice upon which it is founded turns into a crisis is hard to judge. There is no doubt the lack of resources, of public trust, of effectiveness and of a clear social purpose has pushed the idea of planning to the brink of collapse.  

This is despite the fact that there is a powerful, rational and evidence-based case for the value of planning to the future of our society. Everything from the need for strategic planning to deal with the climate crisis to the importance of minimum housing standards to support health and well-being have all been powerfully and repeatedly articulated to decision makers.  But reasoned argument has not been the basis for planning reform.  Which leads us to a question about whether planning, how we organise ourselves, is an important idea which has any kind of future?   If it has then what is the basis for its renewal? 

Finding an answer to that question has been a powerful aspect of the TCPA’s 125 project. At face value, this project is designed to celebrate the 125th anniversary in 2023 of Ebenezer’s Howards book ‘Tomorrow: a peaceful path to real reform’.   There have been few works in the English language which offer such a compelling and practical vision for a peaceful and just society.  But our objective in the 125 project is also to test whether this legacy has any relevance to the challenges of the 21st century. You can find more details about the project here. There have been some rich debates not least on how distorted and misread Howards Garden City idea has become.  But the most striking aspect of the project is the way it reveals the ambition of Howards original work as a platform for progressive social transformation and not simply a set archaic design rules.

This is important because Howard’s book was one of the key foundations of the modern planning system. While concern over public health opened the door to the democratic control of development it was the Garden City pioneers who offered the holistic vision of places which would transform the lives of ordinary people inside a strongly democratic self-organising ethos. Howard provided both the moral force and practical economics which built widespread public support for the idea of democratic town planning.

The interim report for the 125 project suggests that Howard’s Garden City idea had three aspects.

The first was to begin with the welfare of the human condition as the first test of how we organise ourselves.  How can we enable people to live happy, fulfilled and healthy lives regardless of their income?

Meeting basic economic needs was vital to this notion but so was living in harmony with nature which was seen as central to people’s well-being. There was nothing doctrinaire in this idea, no one is told what to do.  Instead, places are organised to enable both personal and collective thriving. The collective was important because to be human was also to be social.  All of this stands in such stark contrast to our present way of organising places where the basics of decent life are at best an afterthought.  Our current economic ‘reality’ is more concerned with private land values than human health.

The second aspect of Howards idea was a strong commitment to local democracy and self-organisation both as a key aspect of having agency over our lives and as the best way of organising collective action.

The final aspect was support for a mixed economy with room for private enterprise but where key sectors necessary to support human thriving and local democracy were mutualised returning profits to the community to meet local needs. UK planning emerged from this hopeful, humane and practical approach to peaceful coexistence.

The implications of reconnecting with our moral heart are both challenging and exciting. The UK planning tradition is founded on progressive social change. That is simply who we are. This tradition is about as far from the ideological extremes of left and right as you could be because it’s founded on the diversity of the human condition and vibrant local democracy. The ideas of the planning movement are non-partisan but defined by this combination of a concern with equality and with the practical delivery of places which enabled healthy and thriving lives. Far from being a late Victorian cul-de-sac, the Garden City idea, and the vision it contains for a fair democratic and healthy lives in harmony with nature, is the answer to a great many of the challenges confronting our communities. By reconnecting with the broad moral force of the planning movement we have reconnected with its most compelling element and that is its relevance to improving the lives of ordinary people.

 So, while there is a technical and professional case to be made for planning it’s the moral argument that’s has been badly neglected. There have been notable exceptions, lone voices, but the reality is there is no planning movement with a clear story to tell and as a result no fight for the heart and soul of the planning project.  At this point I normally fall into the trap of calling for last ditch resistance against the latest nuts idea for planning reform.  But our work around the 125 project has led me to very a different place.  The tradition of planning movement, of seeking progressive change to the challenges which confront us, to inspire and enable and challenge, to offer hopeful future is more relevant now that any time since 1945. It going to take some time to rebuild the planning movement, but our foundations are solid, we can speak confidently about our relevance and above all about a future defined by offering practical hope.

We lost our way for a while but now we are back, soul intact and clearer than ever about our purpose.  If we succeed then we can look future generations in the eye.  If we fail, society fails. So, no pressure.  

Happy new year from everyone at the TCPA!

If you want to contribute to our debate, join us in the 125-project website

Interim Report

Tomorrow 125 2021

This Interim Report takes stock of the work undertaken so far and sets out how the project will build towards a renewed understanding of the relevance of the Garden City idea to the challenges of the 21st century. It summarises the activities carried out to date, outlines emerging themes, and sets a framework for stage 2 of the Tomorrow 125 project

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