What is ‘planning’? Planning of what? Planning by whom?

Guest post:

Jamie Gough is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Town and Regional Planning at the University of Sheffield. Among other things outside the academy, he worked for the Greater London Council in the 1980s, and has been active in socialist politics for several decades. His research interests centre on the political economy of production and social reproduction within localities and regions, while his more theoretical work focuses on neoliberalism, the relations between society and space, state and society, and models of economic and industrial organisation.


Urban planning and socialist planning: apples and pears?

‘Planning’ as a social rather than individual activity has long had two quite different meanings.  The first, most familiar to builders and owners of buildings and to academic urbanists and those interested in local governance, is ‘town planning’, that is, state ‘planning’ of land uses and the built environment, sometimes including the transport system and the utilities.  The second is ‘planning’ of the economy – or better, planning of the material reproduction of society and its ecology – as conceived by socialists in varied ways over the last two hundred years.  The core meaning of planning, common to both uses, is the social coordination of investments and their outcomes in the future.  But land use planning and socialist planning clearly differ in focus and scope.

For urbanists like myself who are also socialist the relation between these two notions of planning is a constant puzzle and challenge.  In this piece I seek to think about the relation between these two plannings not analytically but rather through examining how each notion of planning has evolved in Britain, and to some extent other rich countries, over the last forty years or so, that is, the period of the rise of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism has, of course, set itself against planning in both its senses.  It has denounced actually-existing state intervention and regulation in capitalist societies, and in particular criticised land use planning as inhibiting the provision of a built environment that responds to social and economic demands.  Neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s denounced the non-capitalist countries then existent, and rejoiced when the Soviet Union and China converted to capitalism.  At the theoretical level, neoliberal academics followed Hayek and Mieses in arguing that socially-coordinated planning of the economy is always less efficient and innovative than decision-making by privately-owned enterprises.

But the last forty years have not simply seen the ‘death of planning’ nor even a ‘death of socialism’.  In the 1970s and 1980s, urban planning was strongly challenged from the left as well as the right.  The left argued that urban planning had indeed had many failures, but that these were due not to its dictatorship over ‘the market’ but on the contrary were due to planning’s subordination to capital.  The left argued for an extension of democratic planning at the urban scale, and in Britain even managed to carry out some practical experiments of this in the face of neoliberal governments.  From the 1990s on, the manifest failures of neoliberal governance of land uses and buildings led to social democratic proposals for re-regulation of urban space and for various forms of public and democratic participation in its planning.  In my view, these social democratic initiatives have largely failed to date; but they have re-introduced some notion of planning into mainstream discourse.

The socialist notion of economic planning has also not been entirely absent in the last forty years.  The state dictatorial bureaucracies of the USSR and China had by the 1970s abandoned the ideology, and increasingly the practice, of central state economic planning.  However, in the 1980s in Eastern Europe there were strong currents which argued for a preservation of public ownership but under ‘self-management’.  In Western Europe, the economic crisis of the `1970s and 1980s saw the emergence of strong left currents in the trade unions arguing for greater public ownership and for industrial democracy; and these had their pale reflection in some social democratic governments (Labour in the 1976-8 period before Callaghan’s neoliberal coup; the Mitterand presidency in France).  Latin America has seen powerful movements of workers and peasants, and governments which have responded to them, from the doomed government of Allende in the early 1970s to the predominantly left governments of the last ten years.  Moreover, in the last twenty years or so it has become evident that nominally neoliberal governments in the major countries still practice massive state intervention, though they do not of course refer to this as ‘planning’: examples are the vast state spending and extensive regulation of the ‘urban renaissance’; the trillions of dollars spent bailing out finance capital and providing monetary stimulus since the 2007-8 crash; and the still massive and essential role of the state in Chinese capitalism, not least in the built environment.

One can see, then, a stubborn persistence in the last forty years of notions of planning – or at least of state intervention – in the urban realm, in the governance of national economies, and, most importantly, in widely shared popular discourses.  It consequently seems worthwhile, and not merely old-lefty nostalgia, to trace the intertwined fates of the ideas of land use planning and of socialist planning over this period.  As it happens, I have been involved in urbanism and socialism for forty years, so I’ve amused myself by making the blog partly autobiographical.

I first consider the left critique of urban planning in the 1970s and 1980s.  This argued that the tradition of British town planning had separated off the built environment from the economic and social structures in which it is embedded, and in particular had ignored the problems of class and gender power.  I then examine some of the influences that this critique had on urban planning and politics up to the present.  I look at attempts to integrate planning of the built environment more closely with economic and social processes.  To combat social power and its distortion of urban planning, the left has put forward a strategy of militant collective action to combat power.  It has also sought to extend defensive struggles into collective formulation of ‘positive’ plans, ‘popular planning’.

Popular planning raises questions concerning democratic coordination of the resources for production and reproduction, that is, the long-debated subject of how a socialist society should operate.  That, however, will be the subject of another blog.

The 1970s critique of traditional British town planning

When I entered the world of town planning in the 1970s I knew what it was and I thought it was a thoroughly Good Thing.  Coming from a British professional family with a strong interest in the visual arts and architecture, I saw town planning as the way in which good urban and rural landscapes could be constructed.  The primary consideration was aesthetic: prevention of ugly sprawl in the countryside, planning of relatively dense urban settlements, nucleated rather than sprawling centres of employment and services, aesthetic control of every new building (heights, facades), open spaces with a good feel, and the protection of lovely old buildings.  I wanted to be a planner in order to help create these pleasing urban and rural landscapes.  This was indeed a very strong element in the tradition of British town planning, from Howard, Geddes and Unwin through the great 1947 Act and the invention of the Green Belts.  It took me a year or two to learn that the pioneers of town planning were also centrally concerned with economic efficiency, with good social-ecological life, and a social-democratic vision of class integration and cooperation.

But this naive aesthete didn’t reckon on the maelstrom of criticism from academics, professional urbanists and, to some extent, the general public to which this taken-for-granted British town planning was being subjected.  This critique (I now think) had its roots in the global economic crisis which emerged from the late 1960s, from the trade union struggles which erupted in response, from the social movements of oppressed groups, around welfare services and in the urban realm, and the consequent political and cultural crisis which emerged in the 1970s.

One critique of planning, starting in the 1960s, was that the ‘containment’ of urban Britain by the green belts had had regressive effects by raising land and house prices.  Peter Hall and Reyner Banham headed this charge, and proposed solving it through ‘No Plan’.  This was the kernel of the subsequent neoliberal assault on land use planning; it was crystallised in Peter Hall’s argument for Enterprise Zones without land use, employment or industrial regulation and with no taxation, ignorantly dubbed ‘mini-Hong Kongs’, which would unleash entrepreneurial regeneration of inner cities.  Thus former social democrats became cheer leaders for neoliberal urbanism, foreshadowing the Labour Party’s rightward march.

But the left critiques were of more interest to me.  These questioned the narrow focus of town planning on the built environment, and its assumption of a state that is both powerful and benevolent.  One can follow this critique in a number of threads:-

From physical buildings to building- and property-capital

This thread argued that the construction of the built environment is merely one aspect of capitalist investment, and thus driven by the characteristic dynamics of capital in its search for expansion and profit.  The focus was first of all on capitalist investment in land and the built environment, and then widened to the rest of the capitalist economy.

Critical academics started to look at the building of commercial property, especially offices, and then the activities of the big house builders. The received wisdom that builders and developers simply serve demand was questioned.  Capital constructs buildings according to its particular needs, not necessarily those of the user; a signal case was the construction of high rise council housing in the 1960s, which, it was pointed out, was in a large part designed to enable the big builders to experiment in industrial building techniques.  Moreover, capital  speculates in the land market, and manipulates land policy to this end.  Both housing and, particularly, commercial property become assets, ‘fictitious capital’, which then take on the dynamics of all capitalist assets.  A notorious case was the office block Centre Point built in central London and then left empty for 20 years: for its owner it was merely an asset which enabled him to raise further loans; renting it out might have diminished its asset value.

The critique also pointed to the weird and wonderful properties of ground rent and land value within capitalism.  Rising land values can evict long term users and good uses from their sites.  Land owners can reap enormous profits from doing nothing but obtaining planning permission for change of use – something that contradicts even capitalist ideas of ‘just rewards’. The last point linked into a renewed interest in development gain, which had been a central interest of the early pioneers of town planning.  The latter envisaged that in all substantial developments, the gain in land value should be wholly appropriated by ‘the community’, ‘the public’ or the state; this was indeed implemented in the Garden Cities.  The reasoning, fully justified in my view, was that land price rises are simply a fictitious and mystified form of the value created by the work of the entire community, as so should be appropriated by the latter. This specifically economic and leftist aspect of early town planning had been rather lost sight of in the 1950s and 1960s (or at least, it was news to me when I came into town planning).  It had been a central aspect of the 1947 Act, in which the state would appropriate 100% of development gain, but the Tories abolished this power on re-election in 1951.  Subsequently, developers benefitted greatly from rises in land values resulting from the ‘containment’ enabled by the Act (as Hall and Banham pointed out), but the developers did not have the quid pro quo of paying betterment levy.  The revived focus on betterment led to the 1974 Labour government’s Community Land Act, promptly abolished by Thatcher,  and then to section 108 and the Community Infrastructure Levy.

The left’s emphasis on the capitalist nature of land and building was important and progressive in destabilising the idea that planning has simply to think about urban design, and in pointing to the need to engage with, and substantially oppose, the capitalist land market.

From the built environment to capitalist production

In the recession of 1973-5 and then, particularly, in the fantastic destruction of 1980-2, planning and planners were faced with a ‘new’ and overwhelming problem: sharp rises in unemployment, falls in both wage rates and aggregate wages, and rapid rise in poverty.  Poverty had been ‘rediscovered’ in the 1960s; now it was brought centre stage.  The initial reaction in the 1960s and 1970s was to see poverty as, in a large part or even wholly, produced by the built environment; and it was identified with a particular part of the urban system, ‘the inner city’ (which was loosely interpreted to include old industrial towns).  The causes of employment decline and of the supposed social malaise of these areas was seen as lying in poor housing stock, poor quality factories, ugly and derelict industrial spaces, and congested transport. The planning system was thus presented as the key to dealing with these economic and employment problems.  Planning was once more to be central to the social good.

Straight away, however, the left denounced this view as a fetishisation of place and of the built environment.  It pointed to the way in which disinvestment in manufacturing, throughout Britain, was part of new strategies of capitalist industrial firms, including transnationals.  Disinvestment arose not mainly from inadequacies of the built environment but from the world crisis (low profitability of capital; falling demand).  Capital had responded to the latter by relocating production away from well unionised workers to ‘green’ workers (from cities to towns and rural areas in Britain; from Britain to lower wage countries), or by consolidating production onto the most profitable existing sites and territories, whether within Britain or transnationally (which could be in high wage countries).  The left argued, then, that the focus of public policy on particular places and on the built environment were red herrings, and that policy makers needed to start working out how to control the transnationals.  (A classic of these arguments: the reports of the Community Development Projects of the early 1970s.)

The 1970s also saw the first stirrings in Britain of the ‘culture of poverty’ argument: that poverty was for the most part of result of the dissolute, disorganised and immoral culture of the poor.  This was distinct from the built environment argument, though it had overlaps (slums, tower blocks, poor environments breed disorganisation….).  From the 1990s this organic-conservative argument was to become central to official discourses on poverty, most thoroughly under Blair.  Planning again becomes crucial, but this time as ‘community planning’, building of social capital, and cultivation of ‘enterprise’ amongst the poor.  From the 1970s onwards, the left has criticised this argument, in the first place by pointing to the bleeding obvious: if capital and the state are not providing enough jobs in a locality for the numbers of people seeking a job, then there will be unemployment and poverty.  If there is a job deficit, then making people more ‘job-ready’ is a (misleading and cruel) zero sum game.  Again, the left here has pointed to the centrality of capitalist investment decisions.  Unfortunately, community development policy in the last 30 years has almost completely ignored this argument.

From the built environment and transport to problems of social life

In the 1970s the left, most strongly the women’s and the lesbian and gay movements, began to critique a whole set of hidden assumptions in British town planning concerning social life.  The early pioneers were part of a social democratic milieu in which a major thread was the demand of skilled working class men for a home modelled on the Victorian middle class, to be based on a ‘family wage’ high enough for the (assumed) wife to be a full-time homemaker.  From the late 19C to the 1970s, town planning assumed a canonical household unit: husband, wife with part-time or no job, children.  The first task of housing policy was to construct homes for this unit.  The most desirable built form of this home was the detached or semi-detached house with its own garden: greenery and morality go hand in hand.  Residential areas could be fairly distant from sites of employment, because the husband would commute whatever distance was necessary.  This vision found its most thorough realisation not in Britain but in North America and Australia with their endlessly expanding burbs of ‘family homes’.  In Britain after the SWW it was contradicted by containment, and by the wish of central-city consumer service capital to maintain a workforce in the inner city (hence high-rise council housing).  Nevertheless, the patriarchal family, the family home, and the leafy suburb respectively have been central to British urban development.  They were taken for granted, the common sense of the society; they were not merely ‘middle class’ or planners’ assumptions, but the dominant assumptions of the whole society.

From the 1970s, feminists began an excavation of these assumptions, and critiqued existing urban forms as strongly and oppressively gendered.  The patriarchal nuclear family was not the harmonious and ‘natural’ unit assumed by the planners.  The housing stock was unsuited to those who wanted to live in non-nuclear families.  The detached house with its own garden in a low density suburb could isolate women from each other and children from each other.  Transport was constructed around radial commutes to the city centre.  For many women, journeys to work, to the shops and to social services were difficult; the triple working day could be an exhausting nightmare.  The assumption that older people would live in separate homes and separate localities from younger people (whether their children or not) was also put into question.  Thus the built forms privileged and naturalised by town planning were shown to contain assumptions about social life, and oppressive aspects of these were exposed.

The arguments linking the built environment to economy and social life did not seek to show that the built environment is unimportant.  To the contrary, it is too important to be considered as a thing in itself.  And indeed, from the 1980s it was strongly argued that ‘geography matters’ – that spatial arrangements impact in vital ways on society, and that social actors use space.  The left’s argument was rather that the significance of the built environment cannot be assessed without foregrounding its deep connections (‘internal relations’) with economy and social life.

From the powerful state and benevolent state to the subservient and oppressive state

The tradition of British town planning made the typically social-democratic assumption that the state, the nominal sovereign, has in principle untrammelled potential power over the society.  If required to by ‘good planning’ the state can pit itself against social and economic interests and win.  The unbiased planner – the Fabians’ enlightened technocrat – stands above the fray.  The planning system is therefore benevolent: it acts in ‘the public interest’.

But what the above critiques suggested was that planning is utterly enmeshed in systems of social and economic power; it has no autonomy from the society. With respect to property capital, the planning system, even formally, has only veto powers: it generally lacks the ability to undertake development (precisely because the state is not capital).  If capital is not interested in development desired by planners, it boycotts it (the Sevenstone development is a local case in point).  The state has difficulty in taxing development gain because capital can boycott the relevant development until it gets a better deal: this was done on a macro scale after the 1947 Act.  Planning thus ends up serving property capital rather than controlling it.  Similarly, the planning system has repeatedly found itself trying to ameliorate the effects of unemployment and low wages but with minimal control over the firms that produce them.  And here again, planning ends up offering firms what they demand in order to induce them to invest in the locality or refrain from disinvestment.  Moreover, the state has weak powers, or none, to override the competition between firms and localities.  Widening the focus from the economy to the social realm, the patriarchal and sexist assumptions of planning are not merely a product of the prejudices of male planners; rather, they are an accommodation to the real social power of men throughout the society, and, more deeply, the real power of the social and economic relations which constitute gender.  Because of these forms of power in society, the planning system comes to reinforce the dominance of the powerful.  It becomes itself oppressive.

This is emphatically not to argue that the planning system has no important effects.  To the contrary: the effects of planning are often far wider and deeper than planners realise: the effect of containment on land price is an example.  The point is rather that planning system often fails to achieve its ostensible aims, but in the process achieves the aims of powerful social actors.  Planners’ actions are refracted by social power.

The force and cogency of these ideas explain why the optimistic youth who wanted to improve landscapes wad within a few years seeking to think about the urban through Marxism and feminism.

The left critique and new practices of planning

The left did not merely critique existing practices of planning.  It proposed a strategy with three linked strands.  First, to create new connections between different aspects of local politics – planning, economy, education, health and so on.  Secondly, to support and build militant collective organisations at the local scale, and where possible coordinate them in to national campaigns.  Thirdly, to attempt to build forms of popular planning at the local scale, in which ‘ordinary people’ would gain greater knowledge of their locality and develop policies in their collective interests.  These strands had different roots in British history.  The integration of different services was addressed to some extent by social democracy in the post-war boom, though very partially; neoliberalism demolished those achievements.  Britain has considerable traditions of trade union and community organisation going back to the early nineteenth century.  These were in abeyance during the postwar boom, but flowered again in the 1970s.  The third strand, popular planning, had little history in Britain: welfare services, nationalised industries, and state economic interventions, as well as town planning, had been in the bureaucratic, authoritarian mode characteristic of social democracy.

Connecting up the different aspects of the local economy and society

The left’s demonstration of the deep connections between land use and transport planning and economic and social issues has since the 1970s been accepted by the mainstream – in principle.  This has helped to blur the disciplinary-departmental boundaries of planning.  Most obviously, local economic and employment policies grew rapidly as a local authority activity, and these tended to have a close connection with planning departments.  Community development also became more prominent in local politics and planning.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s local economic policy and community development were pursued in leftwing and feminist modes by some of the left Labour local authorities, particularly by the Greater London Council and the six Metropolitan County Councils.  But following the abolition of the latter and the defeat of ‘illegal’ revolts by some district councils by Thatcher, these radical experiments came to an end.  From then until the present day, local economic policy and community development by and large have followed centrist or right wing paths.

In consequence, despite endless talk about ‘joined up government’ and holistic thinking, the different areas of policy have remained stubbornly separate.  To really join up government would be to unleash radical possibilities and popular involvement, and these are incompatible with the depoliticisation which is at the heart of neoliberalism.

Militant collective organisation

The left’s analysis of the baleful influence of class, gender and other forms of social power on planning logically implied the need for militant popular organisation to combat these forms of oppression.  The left has supported trade union workplace organisation and public campaigns as offering the best way forward on local employment.  It has supported local citizens’ campaigns on taxation (for example versus the poll tax), and, in association with public sector unions, campaigns in defence of local welfare services, and sometimes for their extension (for example nurseries).  The left has argued for tenants and neighbourhood-community groups to use public campaigns rather than only negotiations with the state, and to oppose neoliberal measures head-on, for example in campaigns against council housing stock transfer.  It has supported forms of direct action around housing (e.g. squatting), transport and the environment (road protest site-occupations).  It has supported local campaigns against police racism, and women’s campaigns against harassment on the streets.  The common thread has been inclusive collective organisation which is ‘militant’ in the sense of defending ordinary people’s life-worlds irrespective of the interests and excuses of capital and the ‘realism’ of the state.  In other words, traditional socialist strategy.

From participation to popular planning

In the last forty years, these actions have scored some local successes; but so far they have not been able to hold off the tide of neoliberalism.  However, the state, and especially the planning system, has reacted to these popular pressures by introducing various forms of ‘public participation’, ‘community’ and neighbourhood involvement.  These began in the 1970s and have continued to the present; they have received fluctuating support and direction from national government; they have been practiced by individual local authorities in very varied ways.  Participation initiatives can be read as, in the first instance, attempts by local authorities to legitimate themselves in a time of cuts to services and increasing pressures from capital.  In consequence, they are often tokenistic: participants find that the agendas for discussion rule out their concerns and suggestions, that the decisions have already been made; or that the decisions are actually being taken elsewhere by levels of the state or by businesses.  Nevertheless, some of these local participation and community initiatives are ‘genuine’ attempts to build social capital, social enterprises and voluntary organisations to address the social reproduction which has been damaged by neoliberalisation.  But these initiatives generally have very limited achievements because neoliberal policies of the state in its mainstream programmes and because they do not question the prerogatives of capital.  These exercises in participation and community involvement have generally not created a local politics of ‘popular planning’ where people achieve some real control over resources and real say in policy.

There have been exceptions.  The Industry and Employment Branch of the Greater London Council during 1982-6 (in which I was lucky to work) undertook all its initiatives in close dialogue with unions and community groups.  Its Popular Planning Unit gave direct material support to unions within particular industries and within transnational firms, and undertook a open-ended process of popular planning in Docklands where nothing was ruled out in advance.  The resources and powers of the GLC were meagre in relation to the proposals coming out of this popular planning (so it could be said that there was little danger for the GLC in encouraging these proposals).  But these forms of popular planning did begin to identify what needed to be done and who did have the powers to do it.

For extensive and sustained examples of popular planning, one needs to look to Latin America in the last two decades.  The city government of Porto Alegre in Brasil in the 1990s was controlled by a left current in the Workers’ Party.  It set up a system of ‘participatory budgeting’, based on neighbourhood assemblies.  This approach has since been taken up by dozens of cities throughout South America.  In Porto Alegre and other cities it has expanded from simply setting priorities for municipal spending to planning services and infrastructures.

In some cases participatory planning has been associated with local militant struggles (workplace, community).  In some countries, these experiments in local democracy have been reinforced by, or melded with, nationwide upsurges in class struggle: Argentina during the occupations of factories, offices and public spaces in the face of economic meltdown in the early 2000s; barrio organisation under Chavez in Venezuela.  The popularity of participatory budgeting/planning led the Brazilian national government to introduce a statutory ‘Right to the City’.

The outcomes, as one would expect, have been strongly varied.  In many cases municipalities have used ‘participatory budgeting’ to enact cuts and create divisions between neighbourhoods.  The ‘Right to the City’ has been used by some Brazilian cities to dress up blatantly rightwing strategies, for example Rio with its reconstruction for the FIFA World Cup.  On the other hand, in some cities there has been large participation in assemblies, including from the most oppressed and marginalised groups, a developing confidence in posing demands, and the development of policies to meet basic needs.  In some cases the planning has remained purely within each neighbourhood, with the danger of inter-neighbourhood competition.  But in some cases it has grown into trans-city planning.  In some cases innovative policies at the city scale have been enacted such as a local currency.  Even in these strongest cases, however, the extent of popular planning has been limited by the restricted taxation, spending and regulatory powers of local government, and by the lack of control over capital.

In my view, open, broad and ambitious popular planning, linked to militant collective action in workplaces, welfare services and communities, is the best way forward for urban planning and local politics more generally.  But, to the extent that local practices of popular planning are achieved, they raise a host of new questions.  How can struggles in a specific locality relate avoid competing with ordinary people in other localities – avoid what Harvey calls ‘militant particularism’?  What is the relation between local strategies for the state and strategies for the national state?  Above all, what kinds of control of production and capital investment can be achieved at the local scale, and how do these relate to the planning of production and investment at higher spatial scales?

These are precisely the issues in discussions about planning in a socialist society.  In the last forty years have seen very interesting debates among socialists on desirable forms of economic coordination and planning.  But I’ve written enough here already; debates about socialist planning will have to be my next piece.