Rebuilding Britain. Planning for a Better Future

Book review: Rebuilding Britain. Planning for a Better Future

By Hugh Ellis and Kate Henderson, Policy Press

Review by: Sarah Longlands


The title of Hugh Ellis and Kate Henderson’s new book Rebuilding Britain. Planning for a Better Future is a manifesto of sorts, a challenge to the planning profession to rediscover afresh the social values which helped create planning in the first place.

At the heart of their argument is a fundamentally important point, that despite the post-war rhetoric, the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, did not include a clear social purpose for planning within its legal framework. This has left planning vulnerable to shifts in political ideals.

What is particularly fascinating about Ellis and Henderson’s book was their account of planning’s history in the UK, particularly the way in which they aligned it with the heritage of utopian thinking, stretching back to Thomas Moore’s Utopia. They argue thinkers such as Morris, Owen, Unwin and Parker believed planning was about creating the space for people to ‘re-imagine the future’ and society. They suggest that the failure to re-imagine is part of a wider political issue in the UK signifying the loss of utopian thinking which they argue was once part of mainstream politics. Perhaps the success of the SNP at the general election is testament to the power that re-imagining futures can wield. Ellis and Henderson call for the legal framework underpinning planning to be re-written to include a clear definition of planning’s purpose.

Their views accord with much of my own research. That the ability of planners to provide the space for re-imagining has been constrained by a political imperative for economic growth at the cost of equity, climate change, participation and I would also argue, new ideas. But this has also been driven by an ideological vision of a different type of utopia which pitches planning as the villain who thwarts the dream of market efficiency. But as Ellis and Henderson point out, this negative portrayal of planning is hardly a mechanism to enable politicians, planners, developers and communities to confront the challenges that we actually face in the UK, particularly housing provision. They suggest that by residualizing the planner’s purpose to that of an objective technician you end up stifling debate and limit the opportunity to confront difficult questions which they suggest include ‘how are we going to live’ and ‘can planning actually make a difference to the kinds of issues that touch people’s lives?’

The government’s portrayal of planning as state versus market is deeply flawed. As anyone with direct experience knows, planners don’t just regulate, they actively engage with the market to support the economy

In any case as Ellis and Henderson argue, the government’s portrayal of planning as state versus market is deeply flawed. As anyone with direct experience knows, planners don’t just regulate, they actively engage with the market to support the economy. Their work often includes assembling sites for investment, co-ordinating development, stimulating demand, as well as investing directly in the construction of new homes and offices. In turn, the private sector often values planning as a means of establishing a clear vision for the future because in doing so, planners help provide some semblance of certainty for the future and the confidence to invest. But the book suggest that planning must do more to rebuild public trust and that ‘the role of the planner is to break down those professional boundaries between planning and people so that planning is creative, a straightforward tool for building the future of communities’.

What readers will find particularly useful is the book’s attempt to set out the practical steps needed to rebuild the art of planning and society. Particularly welcome is the strong focus on climate change, a much forgotten priority for public policy and an issue that can be seen as much for the opportunity it presents as its challenge, for example, the book describes the potential of planning to support local energy generation and to minimise vulnerability to climate change. A range of useful ideas and international case studies are presented, the centrepiece of which is a re-articulation of the garden city vision. Ellis and Henderson provide a timely reminder that garden cities are not just about building a new type of housing development but provide a way of building values such as equity and inclusivity into the planning process whilst at the same time, providing a financing model including support for community services longer term.

This is an important book which seeks to recapture, re-imagine and re-instate the social objectives and utopian thinking which are so badly needed in planning, if we are ever to get to grips with challenges that we currently face.



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