The Straightjacket of Planning
On the 28th of July 1914 all the great European powers were at peace. By the 4th of August all but Italy were at war. According to A. J. P. Taylor's account of that week, in itself hilarious if one forgets the fearful consequences, the politicians `were dragged into war by their armies, instead of using the armies to further their policies'. The armies in their turn were dragged by their plans and by the railway timetables.
To take just the example of Germany: their war plans had been devised by Count von Schlieffen to cope with one problem only, the war on two fronts. Since his death in 1908 they had hardly been looked at, let alone revised. They were: first to attack France and encircle the French armies on the German frontier by a right hook through Belgium; then, having defeated France, to turn their attention to Russia. There was no provison for doing it the other way round. 840,000 men were to be sent by train into Belgium, all though the one railway junction of Aachen; but they could not stop there. The trains had to go on to clear the lines for more trains to come. There was no possibility of stopping at the frontier.
The Kaiser and his Foreign Minister, Bethmen Hollweg, imagined that they could rattle their swords without actually drawing them, as rulers had so often done before. They had no idea how their freedom of action had been constrained by Schlieffen's plan. `They never asked, and the generals never told them.' After the Kaiser had declared war on Russia on August 1st, he was told that Sir Edward Grey had said that Great Britain would remain neutral if Germany would not attack France. Wilhelm was delighted and called for champagne. But Schlieffen's successor, von Moltke, `turned pale and said "It is impossible" '. On learning of Russia's mobilisation, he had, Taylor says, `opened the drawer of his desk and followed Schlieffen's instructions'. 1,100 trains were now on their way, as ordained by the timetable drawn up years before. They could not be halted without throwing the army into confusion. So the Kaiser signed the mobilisation orders against France and justified them by ordering his own planes to raid Nuremberg, pretending that they were French.
The story was similar, although less absurd, in all the other countries. The essence of it was this: the Russians could not make a gesture in support of Serbia against Austria-Hungary, because partial mobilisation against Austria-Hungary (which was all that Suzanov, the Foreign Minister, wanted) would have delayed for months (because of their railway timetables) their capability of mobilising against Germany, should this prove necessary later. So Russia ordered full mobilisation. Germany, as we have seen, could not respond to this threat (which was not meant to be a threat to her),. without first attacking and defeating both Belgium and France; and Britain could not go to the aid of Belgium (which was all that she wanted to do) without allying herself with France. Unknown to Russia and Serbia, the Austro-Hungarian threat against Serbia which provoked the Russian mobilisation could not be carried out for various reasons, one of which was that they dared not commit their army in that direction without being sure of Russian neutrality; and `as a little extra twist of irony' Serbia's decision (unknown of course to both Austria-Hungary and Russia) was not to resist, should Austria-Hungary march on Belgrade.
All these moves and constrictions were imposed by the military plans and had nothing much to do with the personalities or wills of the politicians and generals in office at the time. Indeed in each country the plans prevented the statesmen from doing what they wanted to do. World 3 controlled World 2 and World 1.
It is often said that if only all politicians could be psychoanalysed and freed from their complexes and `hang-ups', there would be no more war. But on this story, even allowing for some oversimplification, it seems that Freud himself, had he changed places (at this stage) with the Kaiser or Grey, would have found it hard to act otherwise than they did. They were held in the straitjacket of their own plans and were powerless to wriggle free. It was the plans that sent ten million soldiers and ultimately twice as many civilians to their deaths.
I retell this story because it clearly still has lessons for us. One might have thought that everybody would have second thoughts for ever more about making long term plans to restrict freedom of action in the future. But in this country at any rate, thousands of people are beavering away as hard as they can doing just that, producing straitjackets for the future, the worst (that we know about!) being the structure plans, which, under the Town and Country Planning Act of 1971, local authorities were to combine together to produce, for roughly county-sized areas.
In the case of South Hampshire, the structure plan had to be radically altered even before it was submitted to the Department of the Environment because the population predictions made only a few years before were already obviously false. One of the worst features of the new arrangement was that the new plans were to take on board as `commitments' the current plans of the previously-existing, smaller, planning authorities. In the case of South Hampshire, some two hundred such commitments were incorporated into the structure plan without further consideration. A Portsmouth scheme, rapidly becoming notorious, known as stage III of the North-South Road (N/S III), was one of these so-called commitments. Had these old plans remained under the auspices of the authorities who thought them up in the first place, many would have been cancelled or modified or would have died a natural death. Now, not only were the plans themselves given a new lease of life and enhanced status as part of a new and altogether grander plan, but the same kiss of life was extended to the planning ideas, many of them by now discredited, on which the plans had been based. For example N/S III had been based on theories of traffic growth and life of houses current in the early 1960s and no longer accepted (see page 110). Furthermore it had been planned before bus priority measures had been thought of, before there was any general concern about an impending energy crisis, and before the 1972-4 quadrupling of world oil prices. Yet although the population growth assumptions on which N/S III was based were even more outdated than those of the structure plan itself, the former was perpetuated and the latter modified. The perpetuation of these old plans has made it almost impossible, without endless bureaucratic unscrambling, to do what seems to be sensible now. We are hamstrung by the plans just as were the Kaiser and von Moltke.
The same Act that gave us the structure plans ordained also that there would follow local plans for smaller areas conforming to the `strategic' outline of the structure plan. Ever since 1972 the planners in Portsmouth have been endeavouring to produce a Fratton Centre Local Plan for the area through which N/S III is planned to run. A draft was published in that year and was hastily withdrawn, as it at once met a storm of objection. Its gestation continued behind the scenes for a further six years, during which it cast a continued blight on the area and during which several major decisions - for the road and for other land use - were taken without it. The plan's central features were the pedestrianisation of the main shopping street which is the main traffic route for the area and the redevelopment (to include multi-storey car park and new department store) of the largest central block. Both these features had to be withdrawn (the first because of council members' opposition and the second because of developer's cold feet) as soon as the council were given a preview and before general publication. But the plan goes on, shorn of its raison d'etre, and consisting now of a hundred or so parochial decisions about parcels of land mostly of less than an acre: a bit of car parking here, build a few houses there - all decisions to be taken now on matters where decisions could better be taken on an ad hoc basis or when need arises. It is truly a matter of trying hard to prevent posterity from doing as it thinks best.
As an illustration of how current planning encumbered by the ideas of the 1960s can indulge in most of the errors enumerated in this book, I cite in some detail the case of part of the Fratton Plan area of Portsmouth, an area about 300 yards square now known as the Cumberland Road area. In 1965 the council decided, as did many others, on a road plan to meet the anticipated needs of 1985. Before I describe this I must explain, for the benefit of non-mathematicians, the confusion of linear and exponential growth, which has bedevilled so many plans for the future. If 1,000 things increase in one year to 1,100, you may say with equal truth either that there has been an increase of 100 or of 10 per cent. If there is a regular increase each year of 100, we have linear growth and the original 1,000 will double itself in 10 years. But a second annual increase of 10 per cent will be 10 per cent of 1,100, that is 110, and the third year 121 and so on. Exponential growth at 10 per cent will double itself in about 72' years. Not very much difference so far. But as time goes on there is rapid divergence. While the linear growth will treble the original in 20 years and quadruple in 30, the exponential will treble in about 111 and quadruple in about 1411.
When something new is introduced, such as cars in a country where there are none, or electricity to a country dependent on candles, the growth at first is likely to be exponential. But as demand begins to be satisfied or restriction on growth begins - most people already have electric lights and a cooker, or traffic congestion starts - that growth tends to become linear and later still tails off to a plateau of no growth.
Portsmouth planners assumed, on the strength of recent annual increases, an exponential growth rate of traffic for the next twenty years of 5 per cent per annum, which would mean rather more than 21 times as much traffic in 1985 as in the planning year, 1965. In fact the growth in the number of registered vehicles between 1966 and 1976 was almost exactly linear and the growth of traffic rather less than linear. This can be explained by the fact that as car ownership increases, more and more of it is accounted for by people having two or even three cars; and they cannot drive them all at once.
To return now to the Cumberland Road area: it consists of four parallel `Coronation Street' type streets, bounded on one side by the railway and on the other three by comparatively main streets, bus routes and so on. It is in fact exceptionally well served by public transport as well as being within easy walking distance of all the city's amenities. It is thus an ideal residential area for families without cars. (One of the chief planner's reasons for wanting to knock it all down now was the absence of garages and off-street parking!)
The 1965 road plan envisaged the sweeping away of this entire area of some 400 houses (which were then doomed anyway, as, according to the theory then prevailing, they had `outlived their useful life'.) In the centre would be a four acre roundabout where would intersect a new north-south highway (N/S III) of four lanes with an east-west highway also of four lanes. At a later stage (but before 1985) a further four lanes of north-south highway built on stilts would `fly over' the roundabout. In the years after 1965, pieces of the ambitious network were completed and other pieces, including the east-west road, were lopped- off and cancelled; but N/S III was neither built nor cancelled. It remained as `part of the programme' to blight all the houses contained in it. Gradually owners sold out to the council who spent little or nothing on the upkeep of the houses they bought, because they were `short-life' properties. However, as the avalanche of traffic predicted in the early 1960s (see page 110) failed to materialise, the scale of the plans was reduced from the eight lanes on two levels for the north-south road in 1965 to six lanes on one level in 1973, to four lanes in 1976 and in 1978 to a single carriageway. Meanwhile the state of the houses steadily deteriorated and so did the social atmosphere, as the council boarded up some houses, moved in so-called problem families to occupy others, and themselves rendered still others uninhabitable.
An eight-lane highway is a very inflexible thing. Had a road on that scale been necessary then the site and route for it were reasonable. But once the scale is reduced to single carriageway, you are dealing with something quite manoeuvrable. From that moment it becomes possible to take the road wherever it will do least damage, and that is usually along the route of existing roads. But the plan for an eight-lane route, made in 1965, was for a road through the Cumberland Road area. So through that area must go the single carriageway planned in 1978 to be built in 1981. Sticking to this route is justified by the state of the houses; and demolition of the houses, rather than renovating them as other similar houses elsewhere are being renovated, is justified by the road plan. The reduction of scale has meant a slight change of route for the road, so that some houses which have been empty for six years waiting for the road will not now be needed for it, while one end of a terrace, occupied and in good condition, will now after all be needed for the road. The other end of this well-maintained terrace will be cut off so they `might as well' be demolished and the land given to an adjacent school which is short of play space.
So the route for the road is justified by the state of the houses and the demolition of the houses is justified by the road plan. And the expansion of the school in that direction rather than any other is justified by the road. Nothing is done for its own sake; and where there are real problems, they are ignored or made worse. The only housing problem, namely where to find houses for old people who need them, will be exacerbated by the plan, which will not only remove renewable old houses but will gobble up land on which new ones might be built. There is no traffic problem in the Cumberland Road area. Elsewhere there are junctions which urgently need traffic lights; but they cannot have them because all the money is earmarked for the road. Even on the line of the road there is a crossroads which causes hold-ups. A roundabout would clear the trouble and there is enough waste land nearby for this to be done; but it is not done. We must have the whole scheme or nothing. The Schlieffen-like road plan prevents people from doing now what seems sensible.
We have here four of the errors: solutioneering - a plan without a clear statement of a problem; trendism - a plan based on a trend which was miscalculated and did not continue; tunnel-vision - a road plan which looks only at theoretical good effects and ignores the unfavourable consequences such as obstuction of cross traffic; and holism - refusal to make minor but genuine improvements before the whole plan is put into effect, for fear that they might make the whole patently unnecessary. The north-south road was planned to have been built between 1970 and 1975. Part of the reason for the delay has been the admitted uncertainty of the traffic forecasts. We have been waiting for the result of the South Hampshire Transportation Study, based 'on a highly technical computerised model, which would finally tell us if such a road was really needed `for the 1980s and 90s'. We have had to wait a long time, and now that it is here the answer is a lemon.
The study, it now transpires, was based on three alternative assumptions, one - maximum investment in highways, two - maximum investment in public transport, and a third intermediate one whose details need not concern us here. On the face of it, allowing for some scepticism about both the input and the method (in view especially of COBA's errors - see page 125) these seemed sensible assumptions. It is only now, when the results are emerging, that we find that the second alternative was not, as everyone had assumed, investment in ordinary buses and trains. On the contrary, in the model investment these remained constant. The idea was to invest in two lengths of segregated semi-automatic light tramcars of an unspecified and untried type. These two lengths of track, even if `cost-effective', could not hope to affect more than a small part of the thirty-mile long area of the study, but would swallow up all. the money. Why did they not test the model of a maximum bus investment programme which was what many people would have voted for? The answer appears to be that the modelling procedure could not be adapted to this possibility. So we are likely to be saddled with a transport plan `to take us into the twenty-first century' which excludes a practicable alternative, because it cannot be modelled on the computer.
Of course there are matters on which we have to take decisions now in regard to preparing for the future and there are, in general, three ways of doing this.
1 We can assume that the future will be like the past or, if not exactly so, that trends in the recent past will continue into the future in roughly the same way. This is the way in which evolution prepares for the future. It produces for future use the combination of genes that have been successful in the past.
2 We can use our intelligence to produce the best theory about the future, try to see how the future is likely to differ from the past and its trends, e.g. we can see how certain trends cannot continue because of such things as exhaustion of resources, saturation of demand, etc.
3 We can plan to bring about certain changes that seem desirable, but which will happen only with active human intervention by such things as legislation.
I cannot elaborate on these options here. I shall content myself with citing a case at present in dispute between the government and the Central Electricity Generating Board. It illustrates the dilemma, which does not seem to be recognised as a dilemma because of the prevailing trendism.
It concerns the proposal for a new power station on Inswork Point near Plymouth. The C.E.G.B. want to build an oil-fired station there. The government's alternative seems to be a high-voltage transmission line to meet the projected deficiency in the west country by drawing on the surplus of generating capacity which exists in the country as a whole (see page 149).
If we do either of these things the west country will be provided with an electricity supply to meet the demand estimated on the current trends. Once the provision has been made by either means (at considerable cost) then it will be in the interests of the supply industry, and therefore ultimately of electricity consumers everywhere and therefore of the country as a whole, that the demand shall materialise. In other words we shall have lost the opportunity to reduce the demand for electricity.
An alternative policy would be to grasp the opportunity to try out in this area one or several means which appear now as desirable to meet the crisis of the future. Either separately or together we could
1 Cut down the total energy demand by an active heatinsulation policy financed by the government. (In the case of a badly insulated house reducing heating requirement by one kilowatt cost about £20, at 1976 prices, while a new nuclear generating station cost about £400 per kilowatt of generating capacity, according to the Energy Research Group of the Open University.)
2 Cut down electricity demand by using (with financial encouragement) other fuels for heating, e.g. North Sea gas now, to be replaced as necessary by gas from coal (for heating purposes, twice as efficient as other means of using coal).
3 Instead of building one large power station, build a number of smaller (Combined Heat and Power, CHP) stations. These would be less efficient as producers of electricity but, regarded as heat stations producing electricity as a by-product, much more efficient in the overall utilization of energy, about 70 per cent as compared with a little over 30 per cent. There are of course well known difficulties in using the heat.
If either Inswork or the transmission line is built then they actively inhibit the longer term, energy-conserving solutions of 1, 2, and 3 above. For once the investment is made, it is wasteful not to use it.
In spite of widespread disillusion with the achievements of the planners, many people still believe that what is wrong is the attitude and competence of the planners themselves rather than that their aspirations are unrealistic. I think that Popper's work shows that no improvement in technique can possibly realise what planners all over the country are still trying to achieve. Their goal is theoretically - not just practically - impossible.
Two of Popper's propositions are basic to the appreciation of this impossibility. One has already been quoted:
"While it is easy to centralize power, it is impossible to centralize all the knowledge which is distributed over many minds, and whose centralization would be necessary for the wise wielding of centralized power. (P. H.90)"
The second proposition is that the growth of human knowledge is essentially unpredictable.
"Tomorrow, or a year hence, we may propose and test important theories of which nobody has seriously thought so far. If there is growth of knowledge in this sense, then it cannot be predictable by scientific means. For he who could so predict our discoveries of tomorrow could make them today. (O.K.298)"
A trivial example might be that anybody making traffic plans for cities today is likely to consider including some bus-only routes. But nobody making plans in 1950 for the city of the seventies would have included such routes, for the simple reason that the idea had not then been suggested.
Even in such comparatively straightforward matters as the need for international airports and the costs of large engineering developments (I am thinking of Stansted and Concorde) - just to mention two areas where the greatest expertise has been mustered on prediction - the forecasts have surprisingly soon been shown to be uselessly inaccurate. It is not incompetence or deceit on the part of the forecasters; it is that matters like these, in which human behaviour and human knowledge play a large part, are inherently unpredictable.
When it comes to the replanning of major cities and whole counties and it is a matter not just of estimating future road and housing needs or provision of leisure facilities, but of combining all these and many other highly unpredictable items (including such imponderables as what people are going to want) - not just for the next ten years, but for the rest of the century - then the forecasts become worse than useless. To follow them may be worse than doing nothing, because the result of the vast expenditure and the uprooting of people from their homes may be even less acceptable to posterity than if nothing at all were done now.
We are beginning to realize that, beyond a certain point, motorways generate more traffic and are self-defeating. The next step is to realise something similar in regard to planning. The moment planning goes beyond the eradication of present evils, such as getting rid of slums or dangerous road junctions, or goes beyond what has successfully been done before; the moment it becomes utopian and starts to plan the ideal city of the future, it ceases to be rational. It starts to make assumptions that are called predictions. It feeds these bogus figures into computers and compounds the original errors. The wider the scope of the plan, the greater the snags that are not and cannot be foreseen. The surmounting of these requires ad hoc adjustments to the plan, and we are back at Popper's 'notorious phenomenon of unplanned planning'. (P.H. 69).
Popper thinks that the hankering of modern planners - and politicians - after sweeping reforms has an aesthetic basis, it is associated `with the desire to build a world which is not only a little better and more rational than ours, but which is free from its ugliness, not a crazy quilt, an old garment badly patched, but an entirely new gown, a really beautiful new world'. He sympathises with this attitude and thinks that most of us `suffer a little from such dreams of perfection'; but he regards it as a dangerous enthusiasm. Whether it derives from Plato or not it is akin to his attitude to politics. `Politics, to Plato', Popper said,
"is the Royal Art. It is an art - not in a metaphorical sense in which we speak of ... the art of getting things done, but in a more literal sense. It is an art of composition, like music, painting, or architecture. The Platonist politician composes cities, for beauty's sake."
But, Popper protests:
"I do not believe that human lives may be the means for satisfying an artist's desire for self-expression ... Much as I sympathise with the aesthetic impulse, I suggest that the artist might seek expression in another material ... dreams of beauty have to submit to the necessity of helping men in distress and men who suffer injustice. O. S. 165)"
Jane Jacobs, in her justly influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, echoes this sentiment: 'To approach a city, or even a city neighbourhood', she says, ,as if it were a large architectural problem, capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of substituting art for life.'
In the next chapter I look at some of the results of the surrender to the passion for sweeping physical reforms, although the aesthetic element in them is rather hard to discern.