Socialism in concrete: the evidence in ugly new towns

Core values by John Blundell in The Business

I AM penning these thoughts from Hinton Charterhouse near Bath. A group of market-oriented economists is meeting at the Homewood Park Hotel to discuss the writings of Arthur Seldon, probably the most radical and influential British economist of the second half of the 20th century.

It is delightful here, but then many places look good in the June sunshine with the leaves at their best. Yet Bath has something special. It is not just the golden sandstone. I think the secret of the city centre is that it predates the dead hand of the planners. Outside the old city core much of the area is a fairly grotty sprawl of bungalows and undistinguished modern structures. The Georgian centre is, however, stunning.

I invite you to think of the pretty places that you admire most. Perhaps you aspire to live there. I bet they predate and are undefiled by the planners. Ask why Bath is so beautiful while Coventry is so unattractive.

There is a great curiosity here. Superficially we can all see the case for the powers taken by the state and given to local authorities to deter the “chaos” of the market. How wise to invest powers in the locally elected so they may permit or bar what is harmonious or ghastly. It is all so democratic. Yet something subtle goes awry. Planners seem to have a bias towards the ugly and to set their faces against elegance or proportion.I think we are close to some defining characteristics about economics or human beings inter-reacting. This is about rather more than mere building. It seems plain to me the complexities of townscapes are far more elusive than blunt planning permits. Bath may be a model to illuminate the debate. Why are most modern planned towns so grim? Why do higgledy-piggledy older ones please so much more?

Note the separate uses of the term “plan” here. Bath did have planners. Yet they were private people trying

to enhance their own assets and not bullying others. Bath’s natives, John Wood and his son and their collaborator Ralph Allen, conceived much of Georgian Bath as a sort of forum. The utterly magnificent Royal Crescent was planned – that is to say, designed by individuals, but it is not the creation of councillors imposing their municipal tastes.

There are other towns in Britain that exemplify this principle. Eastbourne was created by the Dukes of Devonshire to make a handsome resort where there were largely only fields. The New Town in Edinburgh is a world-class architectural ach