International Federation of Housing and Planning:

World Congress, Copenhagen 2007


Urban Strategies and the Future of Cities: a Forty-five Year Perspective


Des McConaghy


Forty-five years ago I had the pleasant task of designing the British Exhibition at your Federation's 1962 World Congress in Paris; a task frankly conceived as blatant British "trumpet blowing". We were understandably quite proud of our record of post war urban redevelopment, plus our programme of new and expanded towns and the "green belts". But by the time of your 1972 Liverpool World Congress I had another story to tell. I then mounted a protest Exhibition financed by Shelter our national campaign for the homeless. After three years working in Liverpool's Toxteth area I pointed to the human distress of our inner cities, the poverty and the often mindless mismanagement of our urban affairs. I illustrated, too, the neglect of landlords, planning blight and the negative impact on inner city areas of many official urban policies, including new towns.


The 1972 exhibition also featured grim pictures, not only of Toxteth and similar urban areas, but also of the 1968 Paris riots and of the then war torn streets of Belfast, where I had also worked since that optimistic and hubristic 1962 Paris Exhibition. And I was mischievous enough to punctuate this totally grim picture with that great line from Winston Churchill's famous postwar Strasbourg speech in 1947; the line which said the Europe he wanted to see was one that wherever men and women go "in this wide domaine, they will truly feel, here I am at home"; "Ici je suis chez moi";"Hier bin ich zu Hause"! Some domaine! Some home! And then, just a short nine years after that 1972 Congress, Liverpool's Toxteth erupted in the first major British urban riot of the century.


expenditure-based planning

Those 1981 Toxteth riots were a bitter pill. Because by 1972 my three year project in the same area had caught the imagination of the people there, and of many national politicians. I had tested the limits of the sixties "advocacy planning" (McConaghy, 1972A) but also encouraged new housing associations and co-operatives and organised on-going citizen advice and community participation in every local programme area. But I also then took into Whitehall our national scheme linking local area management proposals to what we called "expenditure-based plans" in every programme area, a system where these expenditure plans could relate to other exceptional priority tasks across each region of Britain and, finally, become validated by Parliament as an input into our national public expenditure surveys and annual Treasury budgets. (Shelter 1972, McConaghy 1975).


It didn't then work out in Whitehall. We just could not overcome the information silos and bureaucratic barriers at that level. Indeed no framework for any such expenditure planning has yet evolved in Britain. The fairly recent proposals by the Blair government for so-called "New Localism" conspicuously lacked Whitehall co-ordination and any coherent financial framework. Now Gordon Brown's new Treasury Chief Secretary, Andy Burnham, has proposals for a complete reorganisation of nation targets (Burnham, Andy 2007). This might well prompt the overall framework still required and might make the essential distinction between national strategic resource planning and what can and should be safely left to local ingenuity. Some of his colleagues have recognised that my above 1972 formulation - admittedly brought up to date in the context of our national resource accounting reforms (McConaghy, 2007) now point towards the still missing chapter in their Treasury publication "Microeconomic Reform in Britain" (Balls Ed, Grice Joe & O'Donnell Gus, 2004). One travels in hope!


But in any paper for the IFHP I must be fairly frank about British planning. One obstacle impeding the development of these "expenditure-based plans" was our own planning profession's consistent distance from actual resource planning. Indeed just one of my initial hurdles within Whitehall of the 1970s was senior departmental secretaries who imagined that our town and country planning system would double as a decision-making mechanism for the rest of the governmental machine! This was not a credible stance. However many other institutional barriers preventing effective action remain. (The early internal Whitehall struggles, proof read by Ministers then responsible, is covered in the "Urban Strategy Gap"; McConaghy, 1978A).


I have followed Aaron Wildavsky's advice that to spend is to choose - and the rest is relatively rhetorical! In 1981 the RTPI President asked for a contribution to a special edition of "The Planner" (called "Planning in the Critical Decade") and I set down very precisely just why our British statutory planning system was uninfluential as an executive planning activity. Then, having got that out of the way, I also set down why we so badly needed more democratic resource planning and why (at that time) we had to develop and give maximum support to the embryonic "expenditure-based plans" then going forward in housing, transport, education, and the rest (McConaghy, 1981A). This was quite well received from Brussels to Budapest - but was not sufficiently influential at home!



Never mind! Much greater conceptual problems were emerging through the whole of our public sector in our national response to what we now call "globalisation". It was clear to many, even in the 1970s, that the scale and immediacy of international money flows made for the centralisation of budgetary processes in every nation. This, and trends towards convergence and "sound money policies", constrained Treasury spending and financial planning became an aspatial and continuous budgetary process. And, everywhere, the "management of economies" was becoming a more centralised activity.


But Britain is unique among large democracies because it is a unitary state with no formal constitution and no guaranteed local powers. So while globalisation accelerated centralisation in states not already centralised, in Britain it was unconstrained and a more total and dramatic process. And it was also controversial since Britain famously still likes to see itself as "the mother of parliaments"; the custodian of the best in parliamentary democracy and local government traditions. Of course most Ministers were aware of this anomaly. Most, also, were well aware of the political diseconomies of centralisation and the difficulties of Whitehall coping with the accumulating burdens at central levels. But as a practical matter they have been unable to devise a way of decentralising while, of necessity, retaining effective strategic control at the centre.


The obvious "a priori" remedy (part of our 1972 proposals) was to define "strategic financing" at the centre and devolve all else within a framework that encouraged local democracy and local creativity. That had been the sort of generalised pragmatic approach to accountable joint resource planning evolving in states constrained by formal constitutions; Germany's drift towards "Collaborative Federalism" is one example. But Whitehall's style is piece-meal incrementalism ... and creative administration is not its strongest point!


Indeed the first major opportunity for this type of reform had been lost with Ted Heath's 1970 massive re-organisation of our central government, (Prime Minister and Minister for the Civil Service, 1970). The need for strategic co-ordination was then certainly recognised - and was to be led by the Central Policy Review Staff in the Cabinet Office. But because there was no formal read across between this "Think Tank's" deliberations and the actual budgetary process (what was then called the Treasury's annual PESC round) there was no effective strategic planning.


That in turn was to provide the context for the first major reform of English local government since 1888. But without any cross-departmental "strategic" capacity at the centre, let alone any explicit "constituency dimension", there was not much important work for our new 1974 "strategic counties" - and Metropolitan counties were eventually abolished. Nor did it help local government to be stuck under one Whitehall department (one, moreover, often near the end of the resource queue!). In short it was all a mess. And our English local government system has been a mess ever since. Then of course Mrs Thatcher added to the storm with her own assault on all alternative sources of power at their electoral and financial roots. And since then the central government has continued to bypass councils while farming functions to ever more fragmented public agencies. More recently privatisation, off-budgeting, outsourcing (and even the offshoring of local services) has all added to the "local budgetary haze".


London and the non place Global realm!

Consequently it may not be now too flamboyant to describe Great Britain as "London - and the rest"! As globalisation dissolves national boundaries London is left sitting "in the silver sea". I am reminded of Mel Webber's 1965 visit to us in Northern Ireland in more innocent times. He had come to celebrate his wonderful and prophetic essay "Urban Place and the Non Place Urban Realm", (Webber, 1964). His idea that "communities of place" would give way to "communities of interest" then seemed to us to be a liberating vision. In 1965 there was simply no way that we could have anticipated the Internet and the geo-political implications of the information revolution.


Now we find Liverpool yearning for the return of its Merchant Princes; for that time when economic and political identity were identical; when those who made local wealth also ran the local councils; the boards; the local authorities. But by the end of the sixties all our regional boundaries had sprung leaks - with managers now just the local branch official in ever larger global networks. And in some ways this also suited the latent system of British polity. As Douglas Ashford perceived in his excellent study of policies and politics in Britain, very few countries have been as successful as the modern British unitary state in keeping functional and territorial choices quite distinct (Ashford, 1981).


Britain's answer to this global challenge and neo-liberal economics is quite clear. We have reasserted our traditional "swashbuckling role". Granting the Bank of England independence signalled our intention to conserve the value of money - at all costs. Then our 646 parliamentary constituencies were refocused on just one constituency; our economy covering 94,500 square miles shrinking to just the one "Square Mile": the City of London. This new "Global Casino" is where global corporations now come to escape tighter post-Enron governance (Sarbanes-Oxley etc). Here private equity and hedge funds juggle with astronomical sums, few of which may have much to do with traditional productivity. So financial services have become Britain's main earner and global export; largely replacing the traditional place-orientated manufacturing and service industries.


widening disparities between rich and poor

But the problem is this. Back in the Northern Ireland of 1965 I also suggested to Mel Webber that his "non place urban realm" did not have much meaning for those rioting in Watts County that year. Nor, I suggested, was it at all liberating for all those stuck in the Shankill and Falls Road areas of Belfast; areas later famous world-wide as flash points of the subsequent war in Ulster. 3,585 were to die!


And now the gap between rich and poor in Britain is growing with a vengeance. The latest Joseph Rowntree Foundation Report shows us moving towards levels of inequality in wealth and poverty last seen back in the 1960s! (Dorling et. al., 2007). This, and the latest report from our premier British "Think Tank", also points to our ever widening "North-South divide" (IPPR 2007). Then a recent report from our Centre for Regional Economic & Social Research shows that the real level of unemployment in Britain is three times the official figures (Beatty, Christina et. al., 2007). Even in London a local council like Hackney, close to our Global Casino, now has unemployment at 12.7%. The Liverpool and Manchester skyline is now alive with cranes - as hot money from London seeks somewhere to be. Is this more glitter in the global gutter?! However Liverpool's real unemployment is now 14.9%! In Liverpool and Manchester it averaged only 5.5% back in 1971!


coming full circle

Our advocacy planning from the 1960s too often saw these sort of comparisons as something separate from mainstream society; a different domain inhabited by a separate underclass or feckless foreigners. But now the standard general "catch-all" response to diminishing opportunities for whole sections of society is that all will be transformed when the mass of people embrace, or are embraced by, the "Knowledge-based Society". This speculation must be set against the grim vision set out by Richard Sennett in his "Culture of the New Capitalism" where he warns that whole populations may become "surplus to requirement" (Sennett, 2006).


Nor were areas of deprivation ever a separate "topic" where problems could be analysed as "A" and "B" to be solved simply by applying "X" and "Y". They were, and they remain, the most visible manifestation of the weaknesses in our national economies and in the institutions charged with managing them. Capacity for recovery cannot be more advanced than it is for our urban economies as a whole, nor conceivably can it be more successful, (McConaghy 1972 & 1981B). However we have exhibited a constant inability to relate poverty programmes to "mainstreaming"; that is to the main overall instruments of public policy and to the management of state and national economies.


It has been much the same in the United States. As a Churchill Fellow I also spent some time working in Harlem, South Bronx, New Orleans and Washington DC - where I saw the same distance of all programmes from the mainstream administrations and the major national policy deficiencies which help to perpetuate the problems. From the original US 1963 "War on Poverty" and "Community Action" programmes, through to "Model Cities", the US "Empowerment Zones" to today. In Britain, too, our National Audit Office and Parliamentary Select Committees endlessly cover much the same ground year in year out without tackling the central Whitehall policies that often only add to fragmented delivery and welfare chaos at local levels (for example NAO, 1990; NAO, 2004, etc).


The extra British constitutional difficulty is that there is no systematic procedure for feeding public audit advice through to proposals going forward; to the estimates. Indeed it is also not commonly known, even within Britain, that we do not have any systematic Parliamentary control of the money which the Government uses to run the country! (Griffith, 1982). As a significant report from our Parliamentary Hansard Society recently put it, "To draw an analogy, the government decides the value of the cheque, to whom it should be paid, and Parliament simply signs it," (Brazier, A & Ram, Vidya, 2006).


So since Whitehall itself has no "institutional memory" each Minister and each new Government often starts from "square one" year after year and decade after decade. And it is the same with other unusual and "lumpy" strategic tasks - like current plans for the Thames Gateway extension of London, or the development programme for the Olympics, etc. (NAO, 2007). Here we see the same inability to bring together all statutory agencies and government programmes within one strategic executive programme stretching across all jurisdictional and geographical boundaries. Exactly the "expenditure-based planning" we took into the Whitehall in 1972.


central targeting today

Having retired many years ago I myself would have given up on these issues had it not been for our tri-party agreement in 1995 to change all British public sector accounting from a cash basis to resource accounting (HM Government, 1995). The objective was to bring all public sector accounting into line with that used in the private sector - and, as a Chief Secretary revealingly said when introducing the Committee Stage of the legislation, "to make the public a better client in public-private partnership deals"! (Smith, Andrew, 1999). This massive upheaval was an unlikely inspiration but the bit that riveted me was the consequential need for the government to invent an entirely new system for reporting to Parliament and the public on its programme and performance. As such it was hailed by both government and the NAO as the greatest single reform since Gladstone's day. This inevitably opened up the whole matter of central targeting, how this would be organised and measured and if it would be validated by Parliament and public, (McConaghy, 1999).


The effect was also to pull the already powerful Treasury into the centre of social policy. But officials quickly became overwhelmed by their topic and soon faced fundamental problems of measurement and the most adverse press and public odium as hundreds of central targets resulted in the most perverse results at local levels, (McConaghy, 1999). But perhaps the most perverse aspect was a consistent Treasury reluctance to link this reform to adequate Parliamentary external validation; that is to say they still resist allowing Parliament any coherent or systematic way of approving and, if necessary adjusting, this new and vital form of public expenditure planning. This has been the situation until Gordon Brown took over the premiership from Tony Blair and appointed Andy Burnham as Treasury Chief Secretary (see above). There is now a chance that his intention to reduce the number of targets (and recast them as interdepartmental Whitehall strategic funding) could realise a new approach to centre-local relationships and to the strategic planning capacity first advanced in 1972, (Burnham, 2007; McConaghy, 2007).


consumption, competition, intervention and protectionism

In June this year President Sarkozy of France secured the deletion of the words "free and undistorted competition" from the core objectives in the original 1957 European Treaties!

One day, when preparing for the 1962 Exhibition, I was stopped at the Boulevard S. Michel as Dr Adenauer and General de Gaulle sped by in their motorcade. They were meeting to sign the first Franco-German Friendship Treaty. To myself from the outer edge of Europe it was a wake-up call: it was all happening! What we feared then was that European trade liberation would create a "Golden Triangle" spelling doom for peripheral areas, such as my native Northern Ireland. (I was then also incensed by the incredibly stupid 1962 "Belfast Regional Plan" by Sir Robert Matthew: "de-magnetise Belfast"! This when Rotterdam was increasing its port handling facilities for the year 2000!)


So I complained to Pierre Uri (an original draftsman of the Rome Treaties) about the lack of mandatory regional planning provisions in the original Treaties. I still have a record of his reply; "Why should we have burdened the Treaty making it mandatory? It was enough, as experience shows, that this effort has not been barred. Now there is the problem of implementation and I do not know if the aménagement du territoirre in France and the "economies régionales" in the Community are going to lead to effective action as long as the principles themselves are not clear" (Uri, 1963) (my emphasis).


And the principles are still unclear! In 2007 we are further constrained by EU state aid rules in Merseyside. In England we also stick to other self imposed cost-per-job discretionary assistance ceilings set as long ago as 1984, and so on. "Protectionism" has been a dirty word though Nicholas Sarkozy declares it "no longer taboo"! But in truth there was never anything like a "level playing field" where the "invisible hand" of the market picks the optimum locations. And at the time of the first EEC regional economic conference, in 1961, European leaders were still quite ambivalent in their attitudes. As Robert Marjolin then said, "If intervention is vice here, while elsewhere non-interference with the market is held as a sin, we must admit that vice and virtue are intermixed in a remarkably similar way in each of our countries", (EEC, 1961).


Ha-Joon Chang has also shown that no poor country ever became rich by virtue of free trade. It is the argument that he uses to support protectionism for "infant industries" in poor countries (Ha-Joon Chang, 2002). Britain only converted to free trade when already the "workshop of the world" and could determine the terms of trade. We strong-armed our way to prosperity by violating every rule of free trade and by ruthlessly exploiting our Empire. Likewise the United States had no time for laissez-faire while American industry was still developing. American support for free trade only began after Word War II. In fact there never was and there never will be a "level playing field". And if protection is needed for nations on the way up, it may well also be needed for those now on the way down!


Perversely Anglo-American objection to "protectionism" has grown stronger at a time when it became abundantly clear that globalisation has less to do with free trade and more to do with the global location of energy supplies, cheap labour and now the simply massive availability of state capital, where Asia (including Russia) may increasingly hold all the "aces". But even in the 1960s and 1970s the first appearance of "Asian Tigers" owed little to Adam Smith's rules for free trade. Their economists were much more inspired by and interested in Friedrich List - who had challenged both Marx and Adam Smith and was the architect of the original German customs union, (List, 1841).


Today Britain has no policies for the protection of strategic industries and services such as defence, airports and seaports, energy suppliers, transport, the stock exchange and banks. These - and even our premier football clubs - and now being sought and acquired by other states. China now has a state investment fund of some $300 billion for buying companies abroad, and is doing so. Larry Elliott points to the absurdity that our own state is not permitted to run any industry because nationalisation and any form of public ownership is forbidden - yet it is perfectly alright for another state to own and to run strategically important sectors of our economy, (Elliott, Larry & Atkinson, Dan 2007).


When Liverpool recently won the title "European Capital of Culture" for 2008 I was reminded of the IFHP's 1972 World Congress in Liverpool. More particularly I recalled how the Mayor and other dignitaries were startled by the opening speech by Dr Arctander from Denmark. Arctander began, "Liverpool - apart from being known as the home of the Ashtons and the birthplace of the Beatles - is known equally worldwide as the cradle of the industrial system two hundred years ago, and of the subsequent market ideology, economic growth religion, urbanisation, parliamentarianism and consumerism which this part of the world has had to live under every since. This entire system is exactly the root of our housing and planning problems and the reason for our failure and frustration" (Arctander, 1972).


Now that the energy crisis and climate change bring terminal threats to the international community some fundamental new thinking might be overdue as to whether economies so totally based on ever increasing consumption are at all feasible on this small and finite planet. Sir Crispin Tickell ended a remarkable series of BBC broadcasts in 1995 with these words, "One thing is for sure. We need to think differently. We need to think more about the quality of life than about the material standards of living. We need models of a future society in which population is in broad balance with resources and with the environment. Without them we could find ourselves on a treadmill to nowhere" (Tickell, 1995).




Arctander, Ph., (1972), Introductory Speech, 31st World Congress of IFHP, Liverpool , (IFHP, The Hague).


Ashford, Doulas E., (1981), Policy and Politics in Britain , p.182, (Basil Blackwell).


Balls, Ed., Grice, Joe and O'Donnell, Gus., (2004), Microeconomic Reform in Britain (H M Treasury, London).


Beatty, Christina et. al., (2007), The Real Level of Unemployment 2007 . (Centre for Regional Economics and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University).


Brazier, A & Ram, Vidya (2006), The Fiscal Maze: Parliament, Government and Public Money , (Hansard Society, London).


Burnham, Andy, (2007). The Government's Relationships with Public Services Delivery. Speech 18 July at King's College (H M Treasury, London)


Dorling, Danny et. al., (2007), Poverty and Wealth across Britain , (Policy Press for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation).


EEC, (1961), Documents de l Conférence sur les Economies Régionales , (EEC, Brussels).


Elliott, Larry and Atkinson, Dan (2007), Fantasy Island (Constable & Robinson Ltd).


Griffith, J.A.G., (1982), The Constitution and the Commons, in Parliament and the Executive, (RIPA London).


Ha-Joon Chang (2002), Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective (Anthem Press London).


H M Government (1995), Better Accounting for the Taxpayer's Money: Resource Accounting and Budgeting in Government, Cm 2929 (HMSO, London).


List, Friedrich (1841), The National System of Political Economy (Sampson Lloyd, London).


McConaghy, Des (1972A). The Limitations of Advocacy , (RIBA Journal, Vol 80, No 2, &Ekistics, Vol 234, No 201, Athens).


McConaghy, Des (1975A). SNAP - An Urban Programme , In The Urban Crisis: Social Problems & Planning , Brand & Cox Edits. (RTPI, London), pp. 33-42.


McConaghy, Des (1978A). Setting up six towns: An Urban Strategy Gap . (Town Planning Review, Vol.49 No.2, Liverpool University Press)


McConaghy, Des (1981A). Planning in the Critical Decade. (The Planner Nol47, No 1, January/February. RTPI, London).


McConaghy, Des (1981E). The Fire - Now!. (Toxteth) Local Government News, August 1981. RICS & NCTJ Journalist of the Year Prize 1982: (eye-witness account of riots and classic analysis of the failure of official "solutions" over previous decade).


McConaghy, Des (1999B). Measuring (Accountable) Success - Analyses of the Government's Measures of Success (Public Money & Management Vol 19 No 4 October-December).


McConaghy, Des (2007A). Getting it Together: Joined-Up Knowledge and the Framework of Debate (Public Money & Management Vol 27 No 1 February).


National Audit Office (1990), Regenerating the Inner Cities (HC169: HMSO London) and for example (2004), New Deal for Communities Programme (HC 309: Stationery Office, London).


National Audit Office (2007), The Thames Gateway, Laying the Foundations (HC526: Stationery Office, London).


Reed, Howard et. al., (2007). The Northern Economic Agenda . (IPPR, London).


Sennett, Richard, (2006), The Culture of the New Capitalism , (Yale University Press).


Shelter (1972), SNAP69/72: Another Chance for Cities, (Shelter, London).


Smith, Andrew, (1999), Government Resources & Accounts Bill, Official Record 6 December, 1999. Col. 572. (Hansard).


The Prime Minister and Minister for the Civil Service (1970), The Reorganisation of Central Government, Cmnd 4506 (London).


Tickell, Sir Crispin.(1995), Domsday Letters , (BBC London).


Uri, Pierre, (1963), personal correspondence


Webber, Melville, (1964), The Urban Place and the Non Place Urban Realm , in Explorations into Urban Space , (Pennsylvania).


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Contact to Des McConaghy:




5 Glenluce Road, Liverpool L19 9BX


Biographical note


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