People and Public Policy

'People and Planning' Conference:

Focus of Lewisham, Des McConaghy, October 1974


With apologies to our previous speaker Dr Schumacher, perhaps I can call my contribution "participation as if people mattered" - and, in parenthesis, "more than planners". I assume that we focus in depth on Lewisham this afternoon and I was to attempt a reappraisal of "people and planning". After all it is more than five years since the Planning Acts of 1968 and Skeffinton's report "People and Planning" and I think we must say that there are difficulties in the way planning relates to the decision-making and in the way participation relates to political process.


Indeed I felt there was a certain irony in a Lewisham conference on planning at a time when whole nations perceive their governments helpless in facing many topical issues. Again, participation was all the news this last week and at least one or two commentators were concerned about the future of democracy itself.


But I remember a former Lewisham, before the war, in a London which was really a vast series of small villages - and even the LCC seemed like LOCAL government; being small and manageable and actually building useful things like houses. Politicians were greatly respected: I can remember my father coming home delighted just to have sat in the same carriage within Herbert Morrison from Charing Cross. We did not have a National Health Service but got good attention from a doctor who rarely got around to sending out bills. And, of course, there were no planners: one wonders how we managed! But survive we did, and prospered reasonably enough, in an optimistic climate very remote from the notorious uncertainty of today.


Maybe, as they say, nostalgia is not what it used to be! But we still like to think of London as a Cleopatra: "Age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety". Or so I thought until I walked all the way from Tower Hill to the Survey Commercial recently - I could only call to mind Huxley's vision of a vulgar civilisation "enslaved by inhuman forms of anonymous tyranny and agglomerated in cities of interminable monotonies of hopeless dreariness and suffocating oppression". Happily, I found an old Port of London Authority building taken over by Goldsmith's College where students were painting pictures. One of them referred to my walk and said, "that is why we need artists".


I do not think participation can be passive any more than politics. "All life is meetings" said the poet, but he was not referring to the sort of meetings we have in Whitehall or those normally set up to explain things any engineer consent. Participation means involvement and creating things and doing things. It is not just filling in questionnaires or putting a tick on 'plan B'.


In a derived area of Toxteth in Liverpool, one of the better things spawned by SNAP was, the housing co-operatives. They each grow to 130 properties, which is about the largest number that members can manage and conveniently take an interest in, - and then new cooperatives are set up, and so on. People, who would have resisted any inconvenience imposed by an official, willingly endure temporary hardships to achieve much more effective housing arrangements, precisely because it is their own decision. This participation in the sense that they are very much a part of it all. Their creative energies are involved.


Examples multiply. And everything is more effective when the creative efforts of people themselves are used. Legislation can only enable but all real improvement has to begin by a deliberate decision of the people or the institution involved to improve. It cannot be effectively imposed.


The administration of our cities tends to stifle this sort of initiative. Even in the worse areas people are totally capable of improving their own circumstances if the opportunities are there. Too often these energies are frustrated and the most modest incremental improvements are impeded by local bureaucracies which cannot even participate with each other. And this is even truer of the local departments of central government controlling key life-supporting systems of health, income maintenance and employment.


Local communities are too often unable to influence their real circumstances and councillors often face impossible conflicts in their constituency rolls and in balancing council interests against ward constituents. But then I have found just the same problem at every level: councils where elected members had little opportunity in participating in some better future for a whole city. Indeed far from encouraging local initiative we are fast moving in the opposite direction - and becoming absurdly centralised. Finally at the very centre, the first shock for many new Ministers is to find how little they can do, how circumscribed they are by the governmental apparatus, by commitments to policies and vast expenditures where they are unlikely to effect much change.


In a journey from street level to the centre of the Whitehall it is clear that the natural resources most abused, are not fossil fuels, but the unique creativity of people themselves. Indeed just as in another context Dr Schumacher calls for an "intermediate technology" we may require an "intermediate administration" to tap the creative energies of people. In any case, not only is it becoming more and more impossible to understand let alone control he sprawling bureaucracies of state, we will soon be unable to afford these corporate monsters.


So that is what is so hopeful about current interest in neighbourhood councils and area management at a very local level. That is why Stockport is doing so well by reinforcing local members with area management and emphasising control, transparency, representation and solidarity with people. All these are abiding virtues. That is why the splendid initiatives of Telegraph Hill are of much more than merely local importance. I do not think as a nation we have begun to realise how much we will have to depend on individuals in their local community getting things to happen, doing, creating and making things, and moving them about, caring about things and encouraging initiative.


As a worker in Telegraph Hill said, "local democracy can only be revived from below". Too true! And we had better believe that local democracy is threatened.

But it is incredible how the rules seem to change when local initiative catches on. For example, Lewisham is losing jobs in general trends which public expenditure encourages. Indeed, considering the overall London statistics and the blunt policies we have to use, no case has been made for altering such trends. We have the old "either or" arguments about whether the industry should move to people and people should move to industry. But then, surprise, people sit where they are and start their own industry.


The workshops Nick Falk and others are promoting in Rotherhithe are one case in point. But last week I saw a man who had been making fibreglass boats in an old shed two months ago. He worked out an idea for new laminated glass fibre motorway signs and had just moved into a new local factory to employ 50 - because it seemed we have to import these things from Germany. I saw a neighbourhood nursery factor occupied by a woman who last year started making continental quilts in her front room and factory co-operatives starting up where every new job costs the government only £1200 - a fraction of the cost of training a planner at university.


So then we come at last to planning - emphasising so far the difficulty individuals, community groups, councils and governments have in getting anything to happen. And I have suggested that the apparatus of government can actually impede initiative and real participation - to the extent that the whole idea of local democracy is being eroded. This does not mean that bureaucracy is malign. On the contrary it is just that it evolved and was designed to do something completely different.


Until shortly after the war there was not much talk of "public participation" because this was the political process. In other words participation was the relatively simple matter of supporting or sacking a council or government. But then the creative politician's own need to think in more operational terms was increasingly in conflict with bureaucracies unable to respond.


And the apparatus had become bigger as government became more complex. And it depended increasingly on more and more specialised technologies all tending to undermine the ability to make straight forward value judgements. As with the present emphasis on corporate management, each useful innovation resulted in more specialised and powerful technocrats and assumed an organisational conquest of something, government, which really inherently complex and inherently diffused.


So as politicians grappled for control they sought to strengthen constituency roles; Arthur Skeffinton said it. "It may be that the evolution of the structures of representative government which has concerned western nations for the last century and a half is now entering a new phase...Life, so the argument runs, is becoming more complex, and one cannot leave all the problems to one's representatives."


So we have planning and we have participation. And the technical device to accompany this great experiment in social engineering was to try to make physical planning into a framework for coordinating almost everything. In other words it aspired to be a whole planning system and we attempted to graft this on to existing government machinery.


The first thing the 1968 Planning Acts had to do was to get over the difficulty that the only thing certain about development plans was that they were the only thing certain to be wrong. We are not prophets and we are unable to foresee the future; attempts to accommodate that future in statutory documents meant that they were always wrong or out of date.


So it was decided that the detailed planning which really interests people should be confined to local areas where we were sure short term action was going to take place. Background strategic plans, or what is called "structure plans", were concerned with broad long-term policies for whole metropolitan or county areas and these were kept flexible so that they could be easily changed. Borough (or local council) Development Plans, in this system, would be rather more specific than structure plans like the GLC's Greater London Development Plan. Then the Borough's "action area" plans, at the very local level, were to be the very model of precision.


Now this great idea was, in effect, a mini system of government. One of the original motives for the reorganisation of local government throughout Britain was to make this new way of planning more effective and, as I say, it aspired to place all immediate action on housing, education, employment and everything else in a general strategy. The official development plan manual still states: "Local Plans, no less than structure plans, are DECISION documents. They should make clear what is proposed for the area showing why the measures are needed and how, when and where they will be implemented."


And of course this is what everybody wants: information on what, where, why and when things happen. But before running riot in the springtide of emancipated emotion or spreading the good news in Rushney Green, Deptford, Lewisham or Catford, let us just see if it is possible to do this. Is it possible to co-ordinate private investment, all sorts of local and central government spending departments and get them committed to such action all over the country or in any one place?


The answer is certainly not! The existing government apparatus and public expenditure procedures do not work like that. And whatever our official manuals may say, development plans are simply not decision-making documents. I will try to explain.


First, there is no economic planning in Britain as in, for example, France. Secondly, government money is pre-empted for all kinds of quite unrelated purposes in lots of separate decisions during the year. This particularly applies to the Cabinet system in Britain, where every Ministry has its own changing ideas about why, where, when and on what to spend your money. Finally, and on top of all this, the "management of the economy" has major ups and downs (mostly downs over the last quarter century!) which constantly cut across the separate decisions of all agencies and departments involved in any local areas.


So while we may want to see that our plans include libraries, clinics, a pedestrian crossing here or a telephone kiosk there, actually getting these things done (actually getting them to happen) involves a great deal more than our statutory planning system. Now I am sorry to make heavy weather of this but I think we should be clear about just what we are asking people to participate in. My own experience suggests that people want to participate in real events - in decisions. Even in those simple cases where the local authority is promoting its own housing, only the actual decision to go ahead and spend the money is really decisive. By comparison the rest is just rhetoric.


If we are interested in choice, in real choice, then to spend is to choose. And somehow we must get on top of this by understanding how people can better participate in the way local authorities spend money. The same applies nationally, where very few really understand how government spends our money, and the very announcement of a public expenditure debate is enough to clear the House of Commons in 5 minutes flat.


I began by saying the type of public participation suggested in the Planning Acts not only fails to concern decision-making but, it if had even been practised, would have usurped the political process. The fatal flow was this: the whole principle of placing programmes of economic, social and environment policies in a formal statutory procedure of public discussion and resolution could not improve politics but could only take its place. If it had been possible to follow through such a statutory procedure and take all proposals through public debate, and formal resolutions we would hardly need elected members at all.


These two key "difficulties" may explain why no definite planning strategy has been resolved for London, fully 10 years after reorganisation of the London Boroughs. And it means there are very big problems for the new GLC and for the new very expensive planning authorities now proposed throughout the country. In the meantime we must settle for the fact that our development plan system may one day provide a very useful and flexible way of determining development control applications, and useful background information for essentially different types of public and private action. Certainly that is the currently situation.


I have seen, even in papers concerning this conference, some reiteration of the common criticism that Skeffinton's "People and Planning" was just a "Public Relations" document and a way to engineer peoples' consent to decisions taken elsewhere. This is an injustice to the originators even if it rather works out that way! There can be no doubt that the Planning Acts and the subsequent reorganisation of local government, in this respect, were since no attempts by Ministers to strengthen politics and come to grips with bureaucracy. It is easier to see by hindsight that, whatever the great merits of central importance of spending was not clearly perceived. Winding up the Planning Bill at Westminster in 1968 Lord Kennet said: "My Lords we take leave of a long Bill. I regret that it is in places an obscure Bill, but if it were any clearer than the surrounding landscape it would give rise to greater obscurity."


What is clear, what emerges beyond doubt, is that the man with the hands on the money makes the decisions: he who pays the piper, calls the tune. I am not sure if one can have viable local democracy without being able to control public expenditure in significant ways. Perhaps we will need to look at the possibilities of small area budget and we may do this in Liverpool. But this is speculative and problematic. It is very much a matter for councils and I personally believe the first threat to local democracy is at council level.


For example, and because of the current ongoing Layfield Inquiry I refer to published views, when I lived in Lewisham before the war, each person in England and Wales used an average of £3.65 from rates and only £3 from central government. In 1969 the average person was using £28 from rates and over £78 from government - including by then National Insurance. So the whole trend is for government to pay the piper and this trend has serious implications for local initiative and self-determination. To even start to diminish this financial dependency needs a better idea of how councils can participate in urban recovery or renewing their economic base. This alone will improve real incomes, the ability to pay for services and all the things that people need. But the powers and moneys for all this are entirely controlled and mostly spent by Government - and for example, we directly give as much to commerce and industry as all environmental services, plus law and order.


Again, in spite of the Planning Acts and strategic planning functions, the Redcliffe Maude Commission on Local Government was concerned with the administration of services and not with the economic environment. In spite of every planning document these days having sections on industry and employment this is clearly not a matter for local government initiative. The principle which governs the financing of local councils is to maintain some standard of services without either putting too great a burden on rate-payers or giving councils an unfair slice of the cake. It is really outside the whole idea of local government finance to encourage a dialogue on how local democracy can participate in making the national cake bigger.


So this is coming back to my theme again. Just as some councils see the participation of local groups in their affairs as a troublesome irritant rather than a positive gain, so the central government chiefly identifies local democracy as a consumer of expensive services rather than a creative resource.


And in much the same way, just as community groups are often made to feel frustrated by their councils, local authorities can be very frustrated by Government - sometimes even abandoning projects in mid-stream. Of course Government has to suffer cuts too, but there are many ways to preserve continuity on the priority tasks of councils if there was more opportunity for positive participation. (See paper on final SNAP Report: 1975A). And there are many very sensible restrictions on borrowing and spending that may conflict with an authority wanting to use major opportunities to underwrite long-term gains for the community- which may currently be the situation in Lewisham. But the point I want to make is that we try to recreate urban society in a thoroughly uncreative way; clinging to blunt policies and unfocused formulae in our key public expenditure controls.


It is possible that I take a stark view because of my recent experience in areas of extreme deprivation where people and planning is rather than academic subject. People want all sorts of different things but it is a fair assumption that most want reasonable access to secure housing, education, health and the prospect of something useful to do. Where no such opportunities are available it is to add insult to injury to ask what people want. In such extreme situations it is silly to complain if the local urban manager has become brutalised when the only alternative for him is to go insane. And such extremes are not irrelevant because it becomes clear that urban deprivation of this sort is the most extreme and distressing manifestation of inherent underlying weaknesses in nations and local economies - and with the institutions charged with managing them. That is the really complex and intractable nature of that problem.


So rapidly let's try to bring all these various strands together. Participation is the political process and it is a process which involves spending and choice, not in the future, but in the immediacy of the present. It was never a satisfactory process in minority areas or deprived regions, where economic growth and urban development make for growing inequalities; inequalities that have been alleviated but not reversed by the Welfare State. The emphasis on "public participation" as something new began to occur right in the middle of a quarter of a century of economic crises: each one apparently more serious than the one before. In this situation some of the more profound politicians - like Sir Arthur Skeffinton - began to fear for the political process generally and became apprehensive as to whether our vast bureaucracies and the machinery of government were really relevant to the mass of people.


This lay behind the great attempt to introduce a planning system in the 60s with its new emphasis on public participation. But the whole matter was only dimly understood and could not be completely grafted on to the inherent inertia of social institutions. We are left with useful legislation, but still the problem of benign but unresponsive public services while our political masters still face an inexorable tide of events: a tide of events possibly too complex to control, too indeterminate to fully understand and possibly also too destructive in the final stages of industrial society.


The society was cradled in Liverpool - Arthur Skeffinton was right - only 150 years ago: along with the whole industrial system urbanisation, consumerism and the market ideology this part of the world has had to live under ever since. The wealth makers were pace-makers and the character of subsequent government bureaucracy was to follow along behind and administer services. So the whole evolving mechanism was fundamentally based on an anticipated climate of perpetual unlimited economic growth with the bureaucracy constantly improving the "trickle down system" of benefits through local services. But without the growth or the expectation of growth the relevance of the whole apparatus is increasingly questioned. With each major question the provisional answer has been to centralise power. And choice, which is spending, moved to central bureaucracies and government agencies.


But do they know what to do? Well, it may be that urban society had exhausted its remedies as surely as it is consuming its resources. In this case we may have to depend, as a necessity, on the creative ingenuity of the masses of people by gradual devolution, by co-partnership, co-determination and by the real type of participation that I have enthused about at a local level. On the other hand we may emphasize further centralisation as growth diminishes and even in as the effects of inflation begin to bite. I simply do not know because, as I said, we are none of us prophets. But is seems clear to me that people and public policy is the issue. It is the issue in your local area, in your local council as you participate each day in decisions. Because the future is now, and the really exciting challenge for us all today is that nothing will ever be the same again.

Des McConaghy


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