In his first lesson from an illuminating new lecture series, David Rudlin learnt that the 1970s was the decade when the post-war planning consensus died
The 1970s seems like a different planet. This was the time of the three-day week, the oil crisis, 20% inflation, industrial unrest and mass unemployment. In London unemployment stood at 7.2% and the population had fallen to 7.5m by 1976. As for myself I spent the first half of the decade as a spotty youth in suburban Birmingham doing homework by candlelight during power cuts, and the second half as a snotty punk raging against something, I can’t quite remember what.
Last weekend the London Society kicked off its Saturday Morning Planning School. Each week they will focus on a decade of London’s planning history, starting with Professor John Davis in the 1970s. This was the decade when everything changed, when the optimism and idealism of the post-war planning consensus broke down and became the messy, compromised, endlessly argumentative system that we have today. Davis is a professor of modern history and tries to remain objective, but you can’t help thinking that this was probably not a change for the better.
Davis starts his story with the idealism and ambition of plans such as Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan and Buchanan’s Traffic in Towns report. Like other plans of the time, these were written by “great men” and envisaged a better world with great clarity if little in the way of consultation. We forget that, while the public may not have been asked about these plans, there was nevertheless a broad and enthusiastic consensus among the public and policymakers that they were the right thing to do.
In the lecture Davis chronicled the destruction of this consensus through the story of four schemes in central London: the redevelopment of Piccadilly Circus as a grade-separated interchange; the modernist remodelling of Whitehall; the Ringways plan to create concentric motorways around London; and finally the redevelopment of Covent Garden.
I have written before about how my practice Urbed started out in 1976 among the vacant buildings of Covent Garden (before my time, I stress). Our first project was a space exchange to put building owners in touch with businesses looking for cheap space. The buildings were quickly colonised by creatives and artists while all the time the Greater London Council prepared its plans to raze most of its buildings and to turn it into something resembling the Barbican. The subsequent campaign to save the area, led by the Covent Garden Community Association and supported by the Architects Revolutionary Council (check out the shades and sideburns) eventually succeeded in saving the area.
Professor Davis cites this campaign as an example of how everything changed in the 1970s. On the one hand there was the generation radicalised in 1968 with their left-wing politics and distrust of authority. On the other there was the emerging conservation movement horrified by the loss of London’s heritage. An uneasy alliance was forged between these groups to gradually turn public opinion against comprehensive redevelopment. While Davis doesn’t use the word nimby (a term coined much later) he explained in answer to an audience question how London changed from a place where most people rented to a city where owner-occupation was creating an army of “concerned” citizens.
There was also the recession of the mid-1970s and a squeeze on public finances so that there were just not the resources to implement these plans. This was what lay behind the failure to complete the redevelopment of the East End despite the enthusiastic support of the borough, the county council and the residents.
>> Also read: In pictures: The London that might have been
However what really put paid to these visionary plans was a dawning horror of what they meant in practice. People didn’t much care for the buildings of Piccadilly, Whitehall, or even Covent Garden, which were old and encrusted with soot. They weren’t even particularly worried about the modernist’s vision of the future. What horrified them was the sheer scale of change proposed to their everyday world. Professor Davis quoted Alderman Sanford, the chairman of the Westminster sub-committee responsible for the redevelopment of Piccadilly. In an interview at the time he recalls walking from Coventry Street to the Waldorf and finding it inconceivable that it would all go!
This all leaves us with mixed feelings. Yes we can mourn the loss of the idealism, ambition and consensus of the post-war planners and the idea of the planner as an “individual visionary figure”. But at the same time we must celebrate the fact that Piccadilly, Whitehall and Covent Garden were not destroyed and the Ringways plan was shelved. While similar schemes defaced other British cities, London largely dodged the bullet of modernist comprehensive redevelopment. This is history that we should all understand. Let’s hope that the talks on the 1980s, 90s 2000s and 2010 are equally enthralling.