The Cameron connection

After The Secret History of Our Streets, I wonder if David Cameron will be quite so keen to namecheck Sir Patrick Abercrombie in future.

As I blogged for Inside Housing earlier today, last night’s brilliant first episode of the series exposed the role of post-war planners in the demolition of the homes around Deptford High Street. Most prominent of all was Abercrombie, the monocle-wearing creator of the County of London Plan who said in a wartime film about the ‘dirty, dismal houses’ of the south London area: ‘You see the trouble is that London grew up without any plan or order. That’s why there are all these bad things and ugly things that we hope to do away with if this plan of ours is carried out.’

Sir Patrick Abercrombie: architect of post-war plans for London

A new idea of ‘London as a machine’ involved wholesale demolition of ‘obsolescent property’ in the working class south and east of London, dispersal of the people and construction of high-rise flats while leaving the posher north and west alone.

It rather over-simplified the plans for London and Abercrombie’s role in them but it was still brilliant stuff. The capital would get new ring roads to speed traffic, the jumble of houses and industries would be rationalised, a green belt would prevent suburban sprawl and new towns would be created to take the overspill population. However, as David Kynaston details in his book Austerity Britain, nimby opposition in places like Stevenage (dubbed Silkingrad after the minister responsible) and Crawley meant that the programme was delayed for several years and peripheral London County Council estates were expanded instead. Abercrombie went on to advise on post-war plans for a whole range of other cities like Hull, Plymouth and Glasgow. For the other, pro-planner side of the story see Utopia London.

So what does all this have to do with David Cameron apart from the obvious parallels of a cut-glass accent and Austerity Britain 2012? Well, three months ago, the prime minister made a speech on infrastructure at the Institution of Civil Engineers. After lots of lofty talk about airports and roads, he had this to say about housing:

‘The growth of our towns and cities has been held back by a planning system which has encouraged development of the wrong sort in the wrong places. We need homes for people who need them, in the places they want them, while protecting our fine landscapes and preserving the greenbelt.

‘It seems to me that our post-war predecessors had the right idea, embodied in the visionary plan prepared by Patrick Abercrombie in 1944. His plan underpinned the South East’s economic success by proposing well-planned and well-located new towns which would in time become new engines of economic growth. And he twinned that vision with proposals for a new London Green Belt to prevent sprawl.

‘While everyone celebrates the success of the Green Belt, far fewer people celebrate the contribution that the new towns made to maintaining it intact. Some people feel we’ve lost the art of creating great places with the right social and environmental infrastructure. Certainly, mistakes were made in the new towns, with the state deciding arrogantly what people ought to like.

‘But in the last century, private and social enterprise also created places like Hampstead Garden Suburb, Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City – not perfect, but popular – green, planned, secure, with gardens, places to play and characterful houses; not just car-dominated concrete grids.

‘Yes we need more housing, but sprawling over the countryside isn’t the answer. We absolutely must protect our Green Belts and National Parks. But we also urgently need to find places where we are prepared to allow significant new growth to happen. That’s why we will begin consultation later this year on how to apply the principles of garden cities to areas with high potential growth, in places people want to live.’

It was startling stuff at the time and seemed to mark a significant shift in favour of the arguments being made by people like Policy Exchange for a new generation of garden cities. Patrick Abercrombie must have seemed the perfect name to use: yes, he was the creator of the new towns but they were really in the tradition of garden cities like Welwyn (constituency of Grant Shapps); yes, there were some mistakes made but he also created the green belt. Finally, there was one crucial detail that Cameron did not actually mention in his speech. Abercrombie had one more claim to fame: he was a founding member of CPRE, the same CPRE with which the government was fighting a bitter battle over its National Planning Policy Framework at the time.

There are lots of good arguments in favour of a new generation of new towns but I wonder if Dave was chillaxing in front of the TV last night as his visionary hero was accused of being the arrogant villain of the piece.


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