The Concrete Jerusalem
Science and democracy are both essentially antiauthoritarian, both depend on freely available information and freedom of discussion and criticism. We have already seen how the process of planning has mushroomed beyond all sense. In this chapter I shall show how the plans have too often been based on untested, bogus theories, sometimes beyond the criticism of the public because based on computerised analysis of statistics; and the execution of the plans has been undemocratic in the extreme. Things would have been very different had it been publicly and officially recognised that holism and prediction of the future state of society are impossible dreams; and that theories cannot be accepted until they have stood up to public attempts to falsify them.
We are emerging from a decade in which cities all over the country have been literally torn apart in the name of three novel causes; comprehensive redevelopment, highrise flats, and urban motorways. These ideas were foisted on the public by the professions concerned, with the connivance of all the political parties and entirely without any popular democratic demand. If in some matters there is doubt about what the people want, this was not one of them. What people wanted and still want is a house with a bit of garden or at least a back yard. It was implied, although not often explicitly stated, and certainly never proved, that this was impossible unless they were content to be farmed out from their cities to bleak outlying housing estates. The way slum clearance and the redevelopment of central areas of the older cities was carried out in defiance of the wishes of the people was as arrogant as in any dictatorship. The result has been the provision on a vast scale of housing of a type that practically nobody wants. In Portsmouth, which has about 27,000 council dwellings, the housing department themselves acknowledge that there are 8,000 families with young children living in flats and maisonettes, nearly all built since the second world war, which are not suitable for them. Meanwhile the Council are trying to go ahead with a road scheme (page 200) which will destroy some 400 houses with gardens, all built before the first world war, and precisely what the families want.
Shaw once said that every profession was a conspiracy against the public; but of none has this been more true than of the unholy alliance of planners, housing officers, and architectural departments of local authorities, aided and abetted by the then Ministry of Housing and Local Government.
As long ago as 1932 this was written (by Hitchcock and Johnson) of 'international style' housing:
"It implies preparation not for a given family but for a typical family. This statistical monster, the typical family, has no personal existence and cannot defend itself against the sociological theories of the architects ... The idealism of the functionalists too often demands that they provide what ought to be needed, even at the expense of what is actually needed. Instead of facing the difficulties of the present, they rush on to face the uncertain future."
- a typical combination of holism and historicism.
On the other hand, as recently as 1941 George Orwell described us as
"a nation of stamp collectors, pigeon fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon snippers, darts players, crosswordpuzzle fans. All the culture which is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official - the pub, the football match, the backgarden, the fireside."
Now, through no choice of their own, for very many there is no back garden, no place in which to pursue these characteristic hobbies - and no fireside either.
As though all this was not enough, there was an added element of uglification in much that was done. Not only were many of the new buildings constructed of some sort of preformed concrete panels, but there was a deliberate disregard by architects and planners of aesthetic detail, proportion, and above all, scale. Jeremy Bugler described in the Observer how one particular building featured 'a massive lift and ventilator shaft, looking like nothing so much as a lift and ventilator shaft'. And this was typical. The idea that one facet of art is deception, the calculated creation of illusion, was scorned in favour of what was called `honesty' in design. A high rise office block would be placed next to a listed regency house and visually destroy it, just as the stock exchange and its companion monstrosities have destroyed the grandeur of St Paul's.
Nor, in spite of their honesty, were the buildings any better in respect of their primary function of keeping out the weather. What the layman calls leaks and the expert 'water penetration' occurred all too frequently, partly because of a fashion for flat roofs instead of the traditional pitched variety which is not only virtually foolproof for keeping out the rain but also effective in keeping the heat in in winter and out in summer. They were plagued too, owing to a general ignorance of physics, by condensation, leading to great growths of mould; but this was usually blamed on the occupants in that they did too much washing, bathing, and breathing. At least half of the 523 houses, maisonettes, and flats in Portsdown Park, a Portsmouth municipal housing scheme designed in 1965, have let in the rain (and hundreds are still doing so), some so badly as to make it dangerous to switch on the ceiling lights in wet weather. The architects were the winners of a nationally organised competition, and their. scheme later won a design award! Four blocks, each of 136 flats, in another scheme just fifteen years old, built by the Bison system, are now shedding lumps of concrete and having to be repaired at a total cost of at least £21 million. According to Building Design (20 October 1978) nearly 50,000 flats of this type were built throughout the country. The London Borough of Hillingdon which has 1,450 of them is in perhaps the greatest trouble.
A public, who during the war had reacted with indignation at what were called the Baedeker raids - air attacks on selected cathedral cities, looked on dumbly as the bulldozers cut swathes right up to the cathedral closes in Canterbury, Worcester, and Salisbury. And the almost unrelieved dreariness of the new buildings together with the legalized vandalism of the demolition squads invited and were answered by illegal vandalism on a scale never seen before. In two lines Sir John Betjeman said it all: Goodbye to old Bath! We who loved you are sorry. They've carted you off by developer's lorry. At the heart of the matter were two theories, assumed but hardly criticised, two bogeys which, at the beginning of the 1960s, frightened both central government and local authorities into ill-considered and precipitate action. One was the theory that all the houses built before 1900 would have to be replaced in the near future, and the other was the prediction of a tidal wave of motor traffic. The spectre of cities being swamped by a deluge of cars was given a special fillip by the publication in 1963 of the Buchanan Report Traffic in Towns, an absurd futuristic fantasy. It is hard now to believe that it was ever taken seriously. (Later, in 1972, Buchanan wrote: 'I have yet to see anything that has taken my breath away as it was taken away when I first saw the German autobahnen in 1937'.) His 1963 report was seized on by municipal planners and engineers all over the country and used to scare their councils into letting them lay waste their cities more thoroughly than the German bombers had done twenty years before. In Portsmouth, for example, the development officer reported to the city council in 1964 as follows: 'The report [Buchanan] reveals the startling fact [sic] that the number of cars may be expected to double by 1970 and treble by 1980.' It was not a fact. Total vehicle registrations in 1963 were 12 million, and they rose only to 14.93 million in 1970. It was not even a fact that that was what Buchanan had predicted, though he too was wildly out in only seven years. He had predicted 18 million by 1970 - nearly double the 1960 figure of 91 million. 18 million was not reached until 1976.
There was no question in the reports of the early 1960s of not trying to accommodate the expected flood of traffic. There was an implicit view of traffic as comparable to sewage, something whose flow one simply dared not attempt to constrict. There was also the fear of the total seize up, with all traffic grinding to a halt. Nobody ever seemed to ask the question: what will happen if we do not build all these roads? The only traffic experts had trained as road builders. The only way they knew for coping with traffic was to build new roads or widen the old ones.
It was not until Jane Jacob's great iconoclastic, anti-planning classic reached this country that people came to their senses and realised that traffic is an assemblage of vehicles, each dependent on an individual driver's decision as to whether to go this way or that or to leave his car at home. She described a case in New York where the protesters against the plan for a new highway which would bisect their residential area succeeded not only in stopping it but also in closing to through traffic the existing main route. Contrary to the experts' predictions that the consequence would be a surge of traffic down residential side roads, there was in fact a reduction of traffic there too.
Jane Jacobs also brought a breath of economic reality into the planners' dream of having everything new. `If a city area has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of construction ... only operations that are well-established, high-turnover, standardized or heavily subsidized ... chain stores, chain restaurants, and banks . . .' Planners have failed to realize that in tearing down every old building they have stifled the emergence of new enterprises. `As for really new ideas of any kind - no matter how profitable or successful some of them might ultimately be - there is no leeway for chancy trial, error, and experimentation, in the high-overhead economy of new construction.' She sums it up with the aphorism: `Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.'
The two bogeys - short life of houses and traffic avalanche - worked together to further the cause of the urban motorway mania. Councillors who might have jibbed at the idea of destroying hundreds of perfectly good homes for roads, felt differently when told that the houses have to come down in a few years anyway, so why not now? Phrases such as 'nearing the end of their useful life' and 'ripe for redevelopment' were used to imply that it was kinder to destroy these houses now, like lame horses, than allow them to crumble of old age in a few years' time. Now, in contrast with the idea of the 1960s that hundred-year-old houses would have to come down, some local authorities, while energetically rehabilitating their nineteenth century houses, are having to contemplate demolition of their highrise tenements only twenty years old.
If anybody doubts that what we have just witnessed was a fashion and not rational action, he has only to consider one of the arguments for highrise which was swallowed by councils all over the country. It was that you could not get the required density of population per acre with low- or medium-rise development. Although the facts on which the calculation was based have not changed, architects now generally accept that this is not true; and this changed opinion is born out by the fact that the density is roughly the same in the Somers Town area of Portsmouth, rebuilt between 1964 and '66 largely with 18-storey blocks of flats, as it is in phase 2 of the Buckland area of the same city, rebuilt in the early 1970s with one 7-storey block and many two-storey houses. More absurd was the programme of new roads for Greater Manchester. 75 per cent of it has now been dropped; but, according to the Greater Manchester Transport Action Group, the whole scheme would, at the rate of road building so far, have taken three hundred years to complete. Alan Stones's article `Liverpool Now' (Built Enviroment, March 1977) provides a third example.
"Liverpool's development plans had always incorporated a substantial `primary road networks'. However, there has never been enough finance to implement more than a small part of it ... Last year the previously `essential' Inner Ring Motorway scheme and the link from it to the M62 were formally abandoned. So far, 30.4ha of land has been cleared for highway use in the inner area, but only 2.7ha of this formed any part of any programmed works. The majority of the cleared highway sites are in the form of long, narrow strips that the Council has decided, rightly or wrongly, are incapable of alternative development for housing or industry, and will have to become open spaces (for which, incidentally, no funds are available.)"
Insane things were done everywhere. The traffic counts showed that Arundel Street, Portsmouth, was carrying at peak hours 400 per cent of its calculated traffic capacity. It was therefore decided to widen it in order to make it capable of carrying the traffic it already was carrying. After this was done, new figures for road capacity were officially issued and they showed that in its old width it was capable of carrying what it always did carry. Now, of course, after widening, it is grossly underused.
Happily while all this has been going on, there has been something of a revolution in ideas about town planning; but hardly any of the new ideas have yet had much effect on the ground, although they have been successful in stemming the advance of the demolition and road-construction mania. The new ideas are to a large extent old ideas. There has been a realisation that many of the unquestioned assumptions of town planning were wrong, and that what happened as a matter of course before town planning was in vogue, was in many ways better than what has been designed since. Take for instance the Edwardian semi-detached. These houses have been the butt of ridicule by the `modern' movement in architecture, yet as Nicholas Taylor points out (The Village in the City), they provide a more satisfactory and, indeed, sophisticated family home than anything that has been provided on any large scale in the post-war years.
Taylor cites the absurd advocacy of the famous Roehampton development, which set the fashion for highrise all over the country, in terms of even the poor having their private park. The Roehampton highrise scheme was built in three formerly private parks; but, as Taylor points out, the whole point of a private park is that it is private, and the owner and his family have the exclusive use of it. At Roehampton and other similar developments the `parkland' is only too public and more often than not it carries notices saying `keep off the grass', `no ball games on the grass', etc. It was actually claimed by some architects that the provision of all this communal space would engender a communal spirit and a greater respect for public property. As everybody knows, the reverse was the case at Roehampton and in similar schemes elsewhere - the tenants resented the fact that they had nowhere of their own. Taylor's conclusion, with which I concur, is that `Privacy is nothing to be ashamed of. It is in fact of paramount importance to most families, the five foot garden fence or wall making an incalculable gain in their happiness'.
To be specific, the theories that were held to be sacrosanct and are now emerging as mistaken are as follows:
1 The aims of rigid zoning into exclusively residential, commercial, industrial, etc., zones and the ousting of all `non-conforming users' - resulting in longer journeys to work, an absence of plumbers and jobbing repair builders in residential areas, and excessive vandalism - and crime generally. (Because the main deterrent is casual observation. Areas which are exclusively residential tend to be empty by day and the same goes for exclusive shopping areas by night.)
2 The idea of comprehensive redevelopment as the best way of revitalising run-down areas of cities. (The word 'comprehensive' being used in quite a different sense from its use as applied to schools.)
3 The surrounding of new developments with open space. (I do not of course mean playgrounds or parks, but the useless open spaces variously called grass verges, amenity strips, or architectural landscaping - useless public space at the expense of usable private space in the form of private back gardens. And this has been widely linked with the fallacy that the minimising of private facilities and the maximising of communal ones - corridors, washing machines, etc. - all makes for an increase in communal spirit and willingness to take responsibility for communal and private property. In fact, of course, the opposite is more nearly true.
4 The theory held by municipal architects that buildings have a natural life of the order of 100 years and that after that it is uneconomic to try to prop them up. This is in bland disregard of the fact that most architects themselves actually choose to live in houses of up to three hundred years old in preference to those of their own design, and probably wisely so.
5 The idea that road widening is necessarily an improvement while road narrowing is never thought of.
6 The idea that specially built double carriageway roads with no access to neighbouring buildings can drain off not only through traffic, but local traffic, from shopping and residential streets.
7 The assumption that traffic everywhere increases automatically and inevitably at 5 per cent per year.
These ideas have common characteristics of ruthlessness, disdain for the opinion of people who are actually most likely to be directly affected, and contempt for tradition and local vernacular. They are nearly all of this century or of the very end of the nineteenth century. They are holist in spirit and they were carried out by solutioneering as opposed to problem-solving. Many can be traced to Ebenezer Howard and the garden city ideal, which itself was based on the idea that industry, all industry, was necessarily noxious and people must be enabled to live far away from it, and that cities were inherently nasty and must be made as much like the country as possible. There were good reasons for Howard's feelings. Industry was nasty then. But the ideas were put into practice on a large scale long after most of industry had, largely as a consequence of electric power, become much nicer, when in most cases it was better to live next to a factory than to a pub or a school.
But another powerful force behind the planning movements that have so changed our cities can be traced to none other than Karl Marx. The general acquiescence in the idea that society should be planned, and that it is either possible or sensible to plan twenty years ahead, derives from historicism. For it assumes that we know the direction in which `society as a whole' is moving - and that we can do nothing to stop it if we do not like it.
The lame horse theory of houses, the idea that houses have a 'useful life' is not dead. The majority of Victorian houses that escaped the German bombers and the British bulldozers have gradually over the years been repaired and greatly altered inside. Bedrooms have been changed into bathrooms, dining rooms into bedrooms or garages, small rooms have been knocked into one and large rooms have been divided. Gas, electricity, internal w.c.s, copper plumbing and central heating have been installed, sometimes in one swoop but more often piecemeal, while the main brick structure has usually remained unaltered and still needs no alteration. This is the reality. But officially houses are either `improved' or `unimproved'; and improvement is seen, still in the light of the `useful life' theory, as a kind of transplant that extends `life', but only for thirty years.
So there is a new bogey, a new-improved lame horse theory, being hinted at whenever the question is raised of whether to demolish or not. We may be laying up trouble for the next generation. In thirty years' time, it is hinted, there will be the same demand for comprehensive redevelopment as there was (according to re-written history) in the '50s and '60s. It is really a sociological theory disguised as a practical matter of the structure of buildings and confused by historicism. What the bogey-man is saying is that by 2010 people will no longer be content THE CONCRETE JERUSALEM 117 to live in this sort of house; but it is put over in such a way as to suggest that they may all then collapse. But the sociological fact is that Coronation Street-type houses form part of a `housing ladder'. They tend to be acquired by young couples - in the jargon: first-time buyers, who, if they prosper, move on to something more spacious. Thus the same people do not have to put up with this sort of house for thirty years. Furthermore should it turn out that fewer and fewer people of any sort want these houses as time goes on, then there is the obvious remedy now known as `gradual renewal', that is gradual replacement with new, the process that obtained for centuries until comprehensive redevelopment brought it to a halt.
At least until the demise of the Callaghan government, civil servants from the Department of the Environment were touring the country inspecting General Improvement Areas, preaching this lame horse doctrine and so advocating more demolition, a policy contrary to that of their political masters.
An interesting example is provided by Frank Guy of how, in the absence of a routine of criticism, absurd practices can become widespread or practices, sensible in one context, can become fashionable and then be copied inappropriately in another. He describes the background to the prefabrication, by metal-framed sections, of post-war new schools, something that has been widely acclaimed outside the architectural profession (who know what they cost) and the teaching profession (who know what they are like to teach in). A shortage of bricklayers in post-war Hertfordshire was the ostensible reason for trying to meet the need for new schools by non-traditional building methods. Standard steel-framed sections were factory-made and assembled on site. A different system known as CLASP (Consortium of Local Authorities Schools Projects - Guy's title is `Unclasp me'), was developed by the Nottinghamshire County architects, although Nottingham, City stuck to bricks. (Guy comments drily `The shortage of bricklayers was extremely local.') Since the buildings could be supported at intervals on jacks, they had a genuine advantage over traditionally constructed ones in mining areas where there was soil subsidence. On this Guy remarks: `Of course it meant either that most buildings were structurally redundant and to that extent uneconomic, or that one scoured the country looking for old mines over which to site schools.' He continues `In the lush green counties of the south (now full of bricklayers) yet another iron-frame system was born, SCOLA Mark I. Later reconnaissance having failed to reveal any old coalmines, SCOLA Mark II is now done without the frame, which introduces a doubt.' What Guy is saying with gentle derision is that rationalised traditional construction could have done the job better and cheaper, except only in the sites with subsidence. For as well as high initial costs, maintenance costs on these buildings are high and so are heating costs because of the light structure, with poor thermal insulation and low thermal capacity, and `huge areas of glass - baking hot in summer, leaking heat like mad in winter'. The demand for huge areas of glass masked, Guy says, `the inherent inefficiency of using a frame for a school. As long as windows were enormous one felt a frame might be necessary'. But the excessively large windows were also the result of a muddle. They were required by a daylighting standard derived mistakenly from a wartime standard for factories. It is perhaps mainly the huge windows that make the prefabricated schools less comfortable to teach in than the old ones.
Colin Ward has written recently:
"There used to be a map of education authorities on the wall at the Department of Education and Science, coloured according to the various consortia of authorities with joint systems for school construction. A white patch in the middle stood out as a reproach. This was Buckinghamshire, who went on building purpose-designed schools of brick, timber, and pitched roofs, and who have at last been vindicated for their simple, durable, and cheaply-maintained buildings, which gave about 15 per cent more school for the money."
It is a moot point to what extent 'system-building' caught on because of the name. `Systems-analysis' had been invented in the war for organising the planning and co-ordination of such things as aircraft production on a large scale and the mounting of huge military operations like the invasion of Normandy. The word suggested the latest thing and, in the atmosphere of historicism which prevailed, the latest thing was the good thing whether or not it was an improvement on the old. It is interesting that Max Nicolson in his book The System (sub-titled The Misgovernment of Modern Britain), although he is a penetrating critic of the civil service system, fell most uncritically for this building gimmick.
"One of the most significant and successful achievements of the new Ministry (of Education) was to bring together a joint working party of architects, builders, teachers, educationists, and administrators to design and arrange for production of largely prefabricated new school buildings, of the highest possible standards and at the lowest possible cost. By this simple device, counter to all the conventional principles and practices of Whitehall, British school design and construction achieved a leading position in Europe."
This idea of the team that could do better than the individual, was another ill-conceived panacea that has often misguided us during the past twenty years or so. Somebody, ignorant of the way in which architects normally work and consult their clients, could imagine that a committee of all these people would produce a better result than an architect on his own. Similarly it has been imagined that a team of doctor, health visitor, nurse, midwife, social worker etc. can produce a better result than these individuals sticking to their own tasks. What is needed is that the expert, however he works, shall be subject to criticism. A team of experts is equally in need of criticism but less likely to receive it. There is the point made by Leslie Chapman (whose exposure of the Civil Service I quote from in Chapter 11) that `if you create a management structure where . . . for anything that needs to be decided there is a committee, and perhaps more than one committee, involved, you are well on the way to creating an organization where no one can ever be blamed for anything'.
Change of building techniques and materials and the consequent problems of water penetration and condensation illustrate another aspect of the importance of criticism. Take bricks for example. Until recent times all bricks were what what would now be called soft. It was entirely reasonable that the newer hard bricks should be used for heavy load-bearing in multi-storey buildings, for instance in the Portsdown Park development already mentioned. It is now realised that one of the advantages of the old soft bricks was their sponge-like quality which enabled them to absorb moisture. The hard modern bricks are impervious, and so driving rain tends to penetrate in larger quantities the unavoidable crevices in the brickwork. I am not saying that in the old days they knew better. They did not have to know. The old bricks worked well. Probably nobody ever bothered to wonder why. It is only when we come to replace them that we come to appreciate their qualities. So it is, I suggest, with all tradition. We may not be able to see any reason, there may well have been no reason as such, in a traditional practice; but this does not mean that we can abandon it with impunity. We must always expect, in changing from something that works well to something which looks as if it should work better, that there will be unforeseen snags, indeed unforeseeable ones. We have to try and see what happens. We readily see the white swans; but we must look for the black ones. This is not of course to say that tradition is good and innovation bad. We need both and we need a critical attitude to both.
Benefits which could be obtained more certainly by a direct, piecemeal, approach are sometimes obtained incidentally by holist solutioneering and retrospectively claimed to justify it. Terence Bendixson quotes from a speech in May 1973 by the then Secretary of State for the Environment:
"One of the aims of our current programme of strategic roads is to achieve environmental improvements by relieving a large number of towns and villages in this way. Of the 520 towns in England with a population over 10,000, about 100 have by-passes or high quality relief roads and by the end of the 1980s another 150 will have been completed .. ."
And then, warming to his subject, He goes on:
"Some of the effects of such relief can be measured and expressed in terms of reduced levels of noise and pollution, but the main benefit is to the well-being of local inhabitants: the relief from stress through being rid of noisy, smelly, intrusive traffic which they feel should not be there."
On looking at this speech the other way round, Bendixson points out, what emerges is that by the end of the 1980s (officialese for 1990) more than half of the towns mentioned will still be without a by-pass. Five miles of 24-foot two-lane by-pass can be constructed for the cost of each mile of motorway. Now, if the preliminary operation had been to list the most urgent problems concerning road traffic, and if, as most of those affected would certainly have said, the most urgent problem was to free towns and villages of heavy through-traffic, then it might have led to an entirely different idea - abandon the motorway network (not necessarily abandon all motorway construction) - and make the first priority the construction of by-passes. Then probably all the 520 towns could be relieved of through traffic by 1990, with all the advantages that the Minister listed.
This solution, unlike the strategic motorway network, would not appeal to those of holist mentality and, if ever considered in the 1960s, was doubtless dismissed as merely tinkering with the problem. Rather late in the day, it is now being adopted, at least in the south of England, where the south coast motorway is being abandoned in favour of local by-passes. I suspect that this is one instance where ministers have managed to get the better of their professional advisers.
It is important to note that the Minister justified the holist solution, the strategic network, by its welcome popular effect of relieving towns of traffic, which it will do only incidentally. The solution is justified in other words as compared with doing nothing rather than compared with a plan specifically designed to relieve towns of through-traffic. This dishonesty is a very common practice. Objectors to holist schemes are regularly made to appear as opposing the desirable object of improving the conditions of the people in whatever way it may be - better housing, better education etc., when what they are really objecting to is the particular solution proposed which, often enough, both fails to achieve its alleged object economically, and gratuitously ruins a hundred perfectly good houses by the way.
Once on the look-out for solutioneering, one finds examples of it in surprisingly rational-seeming disguise. The M.O.T. test for cars which are more than three years old is, on the face of it, a rational measure for improving road safety. However there were no official figures for accidents due to defective vehicles before 1961 when the test was introduced, according to Malcolm Hulke, and now that there are, they hardly support the idea. The 2,130 accidents that occurred between 1970 and 1974 within twenty miles of the Transport and Road Research Laboratory (TRRL) in Berkshire were studied in detail. Only 24 per cent of these could be attributed to vehicle defects alone; and in 894 per cent vehicle defects played no part. On the other hand 65 per cent were solely the fault of road users. The TRRL reported that of 632 `impaired' drivers, 463 were drunk, 159 tired, 87 drugged, and 26 unhappy. Obviously only a very small return could be expected in terms of lives saved from measures to bring all vehicles even up to 100 per cent efficiency, very small compared, for instance to `don't drink and drive' measures. It certainly looks as though the institution of the M.O.T. test was a piece of solutioneering, coupled perhaps with a holist prejudice against patching up old cars, the idea being to try to force them off the road and replace them with new ones. Certainly there was no previous study to indicate the extent of the problem, no precise formulation of what it was, and no monitoring of the effect. Since it was started, its range has been greatly extended and its cost increased, so obliging the non-mechanical members of the public to be the dupes of unscrupulous garages.
The threat to democracy posed by the misuse of computers has been brought to light most clearly in public inquiries associated with proposed new motorways and other major roads. The case for the road is always based by the Department of Transport on a cost -benefit analysis (C.O.B.A.) which takes into account one cost (the cost of building the road) and three benefits: the savings of time, vehicle operating costs, and accidents. As Dr John Adams points out, cash evaluation of these four elements yields a quite arbitrary cost-benefit ratio. Of the four, one (construction costs) is a hard cash element, one (vehicle operating costs) is generally insignificant, one (time saving) is highly contentious, and one (the cost of accidents) is meaningless. This last confuses `the price that someone is prepared to pay to safeguard something he values (for example his life) with the price he would consider fair compensation for its loss'. (And the second, if the something is life, ties the cost-benefit analysts into logical knots when they `try to calculate the cash compensation that ought to be paid to someone who is dead and incapable of spending it'. At that time (1976) C.O.B.A. valued a fatal accident at £44,000, a little more, Adams pointed out, than `the damage done to the reputation of an actor' [the creator of Kojak] 'by a newspaper article which claimed that he got drunk and forgot his lines'.
Although the death and serious injury rate per passenger mile is much less on motorways than on other roads as a whole (largely because there are no pedestrians or cyclists and these two categories of road users make up 50 per cent of the serious casualties on other roads), there can be no doubt that one of the effects of building a motorway is to increase the amount of traffic in the country as a whole. Since the more traffic there is, the more accidents there are, it must follow that motorways cause accidents elsewhere. So although the casualties on a motorway itself can be expected to be low, its true costs even in accidents are not taken into account because it will cause them elsewhere. In fact what is counted as a benefit is really a cost.
This system is objectionable in two ways. First the C.O.B.A. rests on the assumption that everyone has his price. Again Adams exposed this nicely when he said:
"The sincere exasperation of C.B. analysts with a man who cannot, or will not, name his price illustrates what an insidiously corrupting poison cost-benefit analysis is. It used to be a common view that people ought to hold certain things, the most valuable things, above price. The extent to which this view is less common than previously is a measure of the increased acceptance of the cost-benefit ethic. It is an ethic which debases that which is important and disregards entirely that which is supremely important."
Secondly, although C.O. B. A. is based on the analysis of only four factors, the calculation of them is extremely complicated and can be done only by a computer. And for all that the public know the statistics that form the material for these abstruse and inaccessible calculations may be gathered by the process described by Mr Denis Healey, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who while unfit for active service during the war, was posted to Swindon station to replace 'a drunken bombadier who was a railway checker'. Mr Healey told a newspaper interviewer that he had learnt there 'a lesson of lasting importance about statistics'. 'One of my jobs', he said, 'was to count all the service people getting on every train, getting off every train, and off and on again, on six platforms in the blackout.' It was an impossible job. He had to invent the numbers getting on, and off and on, and went to the ticket collector to get the numbers of those who were getting off. 'After I'd been there a fortnight I found that he made up his numbers too!' His comment was that he suspects that a great deal of economic planning today is based on this kind of statistics. At any rate - to return to C.O. B. A. - the figures that emerge have the status of a revelation. The Department of Transport, as the saying is, has a hot line to God. The objectors to the Department's schemes have no direct communication with God. The most they can do is to express their scepticism.
That one side of the argument in a public debate should be incomprehensible to the public negates democracy and reduces these inquiries to the status of a farce. It also means that however much expertise the Department of Transport may deploy, their calculations lack the objective status of science because, as has already. been stated, that objectivity depends not on such things as the efficiency of computers, but on anybody so minded being able' to check the calculations for himself. Computer scientists themselves have a saying: `garbage in, garbage out'.
Now it happens that on two recent occasions, there have been, among the objectors to the Department of Transport's schemes, people with the necessary time and expertise to repeat the C.O.B.A. for themselves; and on these two occasions they have shown the calculations to be wrong. It has not been made very clear in the press what has been the reason for the many disruptions of the proceedings at motorway inquiries. They have been portrayed as being due to people seeking to take the law into their own hands. On the contrary, they see themselves, I think rightly, as upholders of the democratic process and the law (a view with which the Court of Appeal now seems to agree). Until the disorderly disruptions, evidence against the need for road schemes was, contrary to the Highways Act of 1959, disallowed at public inquiries. Objectors were allowed only to dispute the route. There were a number of other irregularities of procedure which John Tyme goes into in his book Motorways Versus Democracy. Mr John Thorn, Headmaster of Winchester College, who was marched out of one inquiry, was particularly incensed:
"The workings of our so-called democracy in this matter of roads is left to tribunals whose composition and procedures are reminiscent not of the English Common Law Courts, but of Tudor treason trials ... Respectable, law-abiding and peace-loving citizens do not lightly behave noisily in public ... but occasionally, just occasionally, they feel something so deeply, become so frustrated with a system which denies them power while granting them speech, that they begin non-violently to behave like rebels."
These attitudes have been abundantly justified now in retrospect by the revelation of the serious official miscalculations. Not only have the Department of Transport behaved high-handedly, but their case has been arithmetically wrong. Needlesss to say, in both cases the error was in the direction of forecasting greater benefits from their schemes than were warranted by the assumptions made. It is now apparent that the burying in concrete of what Mr Thorn described as 'one of the most beautiful square miles of stone, river, and meadow, in the whole of western Europe' (the south-eastern fringe of Winchester) might have been deemed justified in the interests of the country's economy on the basis of a computer operator's error. This surely rams home the point that theories and calculations must not be relied upon until serious public attempts have been made to refute them and have failed.
In a B.B.C. television programme (24.2.79) reviewing a series of films on post-war planning and architecture, the question arose as to who had had the power to carry through, for example, the decision to build pre-fabricated tower blocks and slabs. Was it the architects, the planners, the politicians, the construction companies? Christopher Booker, the author of one of the films (a devastating exposure of the disasters discussed here) replied. He said he could answer the question in one word: it was the 'vision', the vision of the city of the future, something partly but not wholly derived from Le Corbusier, something not precisely spelt out and never systematically criticised. This World 3 object was the culprit.