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 achievement but this was not the genius of a local government committee. It was individuals collaborating to render the entire site elegant and harmonious. Modern Edinburgh council only commissions transient mediocracy, though we may excuse it the gross error of the Scottish parliament.

This is not just a British phenomenon. Across the globe the socialists captured the moral high ground. Cities had to be controlled and commanded. Why are so many cities in the United States so soul-less? Why do the middle classes flee and commute?

The brilliant Jane Jacobs, the indefatigable opponent of town planners who died in April, started out as a woman of the left who regarded speculative building horrors in New York as badges of capitalism. She came to realise they were all city hall derived and directed. The capitalists were erecting only what the bureaucrats, influenced by leftist public intellectuals, authorised. Ayn Rand’s memorable novel The Fountainhead is highly recommended on this front. Read that with Jane Jacobs’ works and the scales will fall from your eyes. You will appreciate our townscapes with new perceptions.

The Prince of Wales’ Poundbury townscape in Dorset is much mocked as artificial. There is a very simple test of its success. Do people want to live there? Are prices rising? The market signals success.

Put all this the other way around. Where would we all least like to live? The answer is surely inner city council estates especially their numbing tower blocks. This is socialism rendered real and stark in concrete. Some shrug and say this was a temporary lapse of judgment. Others still see beauty in the gaunt towers. Bulldozers seem the best policy tool to me.

Mark Pennington of London’s Queen Mary College is the only academic economist I know of who has written on this mystery of why the planned is oppressive but the voluntary so much more aesthetically successful. There is now an entrenched professional cadre of planners. They are the problem. One of Pennington’s most interesting observations is that the privately planned new towns such as Letchworth have had far better long-run outcomes than their more statist cousins. Scotland’s Cumbernauld wins prizes for its brutality.

Take away all the stale assumptions of planning and we might surprise ourselves with what would evolve in the marketplace. Some of the most enviable homes, to my taste, are the gracious stucco houses around London’s Regent Park. All were erected by private money to their own specifications and risk.

If modern planners need sharp lessons in humility they are not new to the error. After the Great Fire of London, Sir Christopher Wren wanted to impose a huge grid plan. Charles II approved of his schemes but the citizens of London moved so quickly to rebuild along old lines he was left with only the churches.

In the battle of ideas, town and country planning is almost as triumphant as its fruits are sour. We need to rethink how our townscapes should evolve. Third party rights can be protected or enhanced by market processes.

This could be an immense business opportunity. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of “planning blight” and of “brown land”. These exemplify the errors of leaving matters to the municipal mind. If we let developers try out new ventures with new patterns of ownership, perhaps we could emulate the astonishing beauty of Bath.

The men who created this wonder were no wiser than us. Their builders were no more dextrous. Yet they achieved beauty where modern planners create only banality.

John Blundell is Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs

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