When glancing through old journals and books on planning, it never ceases to surprise me how most of the problems we think of as contemporary are, of course, anything but. That is perhaps as much an indictment of our past abilities to effectively synthesise and disseminate knowledge as it is of our present-day lack of imagination.
A couple of old issues of OAP Journal for the Built Environment recently caught my eye. (It’s amazing what you find behind the furniture in universities…) Both were theme issues of what (I guess) went on to become Built Environment. The first, from February 1972, deals with the tricky subject of urban motorways. In Sheffield, we can probably be glad that ambitious plans for an urban motorway scheme never came to fruition and that, as a result, the city is not nearly as blighted in that regard as Leeds, Glasgow or Newcastle upon Tyne. There was a great deal of insight in 1972 into the problems associated with urban motorways and of the very costly technical fixes that might have been employed to mitigate their environmental and social impacts — fixes, incidentally, that we refused to do but that many European countries appear to have found the money for. But the reason I mention it is that on the same day I was thumbing through this particular issue of OAP (while recalling the guilty pleasures of being driven around the M8 in Glasgow as a child and thinking it was the future…) I received an email from the Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland subscription service proudly proclaiming the completion of the M74 motorway through Glasgow’s Southside, more or less, as I gather, along the lines envisaged for it in the 1960 Highway Plan for Glasgow (see Milligan, 1972). Plans can be a long time in the making! But it does raise the question of whether the world moves on so much as to render those plans looking, well, a bit daft. Or maybe not. Time will tell us whether the economic needs of west central Scotland, as embodied in the clear political drive to finish this road, will be succesfully balanced with the need for the social and environmental regeneration of what is probably the biggest concentration of socioeconomic deprivation in the UK. But if history does tell us anything it is that this new road would not have been built through the leafy West End – nobody’s talking about resurrecting the Great Western Road expressway scheme, presumably because land prices would simply be prohibitive as much as anything else. So is it steely political resolve, or just plain old land economics?
Destructive as though urban motorways are, they have probably proven to be less controversial in hindsight than the topic dealt with in January 1972’s edition of OAP: slum clearance — another urban problem that refuses to go away. The Housing Market Renewal scheme in England is the most recent incarnation of a longstanding desire to modernise and improve housing areas comprehensively. That programme (recently canned by Housing Minister Grant Shapps halfway through) attracted a lot of criticism. It’s no secret that I have written in broadly supportive terms about the programme because I understood it to be responding to a long term structural issue of economic decline and change in some very depressed areas — a response to the inevitable failures of leaving neighbourhood to the vagaries of the market. As someone convinced by the theoretical attractions of demand side economic policy it seemed logical to me that housing policy should work much more closely with local economic matters, in a much more strategic way. Against that backdrop, the heritage arguments of the likes of SAVE Britiain’s Heritage seemed just about as unfeeling towards local needs as did the bulldozer’s circling round Ringo Starr’s childhood home. What does Liverpool need in the long run? Jobs and a sustainable housing market, or a few more quaint crumbling terraces so beloved of the Islington set (but with about a third of the square footage as those in N1)? That said, I am concerned that the HMR programme had lots of flaws and, at times, was badly executed (if strategically sound). And of course it had very real impacts on local residents who were forced to sell up and move on, just as for those living in the path of the M74 that will soon glide Lanarkshire commuters to their destination 10 minutes quicker, or for those living in Ashopton who had to make way for the needs of thirsty Sheffielders. The social justice issues are of course enormous, but we’re all complicit in them to some degree whenever we get in our cars or even just turn on our taps.
So why did I find the OAP article so interesting? Well, it seems that the overt defence for the massive upheaval of slum clearance back in the 60s was as much about dealing with “the throes of a massive economic reconstruction” (Amos, 1972) as it was about getting people out of “intolerable housing conditions” (ibid.). So, even HMR, with its new twist on housing through economic rescaling, was not a new idea in that sense.