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Inauguration speech as RTPI President 1996

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RTPI President, 1996 RTPI President, 1996 Planning Week

Twenty years ago I became RTPI President. Here is the text of the speech I gave to RTPI Council on my inauguration. It ends by reaffirming the manifesto published in 1975 by the Radical Institute Group, of which I was one of the founders.


After thanking the RTPI, my colleagues and employer and my family for their support, I began by quoting R.H.Tawney's "The Acquisitive Society":

There are times which are not ordinary, and in such times it is not enough to follow the road. It is necessary to know where it leads, and, if it leads nowhere to follow another. The search for another involves reflection, which is uncongenial to the bustling people who describe themselves as practical, because they take things as they are and leave them as they are. But the practical thing for the traveller who is uncertain of his past is not to proceed with the utmost rapidity in the wrong direction: it is to consider how to find the right one.

I then continued:

The times are not ordinary. By the year 2000, for the first time in history, a city will be home for half the people on the planet. New types of urban environment are emerging, and more urgent questions are being asked about the world's cities than at any time since the invention of the industrial city almost 200 years ago. United Nations projections suggest that "Third World" urban population will grow by more than 700 million persons between 1990 and 2000,and that 80% of the world's population growth in this decade will be in urban areas (United Nations, 1991). In 1960, eight of the world's ten largest urban areas in terms of population were in the First World. By the year 2000, eight of the ten biggest cities will be in Asia or South America, and they will be bigger than any cities previously known. These changes constitute the most enormous challenge to town planners, and must be the priority for the UN Summit on Cities in Istanbul in June.

Cities of the rich Northern hemisphere also matter globally. They account for a high proportion of the world's consumption of resources, not least energy, and they make a major contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions. As town planners we must engage with these issues. No visitor to London can be unaware of the problems of air pollution. No resident of West Yorkshire can be complacent about the problems of water consumption. Nobody with friends or family living in the inner cities can be unaware of the social chasm that excludes residents of such areas from precisely those qualities that make cities the most ingenious and sophisticated invention of humanity - economic opportunity, social contact, liberation from the shackles of superstition and conservatism, access to learning and culture, and a common identity with others who share that space and its civic artifacts.

Healthy cities depend on a set of rights and obligations linking private and public spheres. The lead story in The Observer last Sunday (21 January 1996) was a leak of a government report by health experts which says that Britain's poor are facing malnutrition on a scale unknown since the 1930s:

".                "the combination of rising poverty and the boom in out-of-town superstores has left `whole communities with inadequate access to the constituents of a healthy diet'.... The report implicitly rebukes the big retailers and planners for allowing superstores to be built on sites that are virtually out of bounds to people without cars."

The planning and management of cities is therefore of vital importance globally and locally, environmentally and socially. As Tawney said, it is not enough to follow the road, we need to reflect on where it leads to. Canon Bartlett, an early supporter of town planning, in an essay in 1893 wrote:

                 "A true municipality should completely grasp the life of a community, and in so doing should aim at addressing the communal idea, `One for all, all for one'" (quoted in H.E.Meller, "The Ideal City", Leicester University Press, Leicester, 1979, p.65).

In Britain local government has been debilitated to a degree without equal in industrialised countries, so that it now approaches the cipher status which was the norm in the old Soviet Block.   The cohesion and competitiveness of cities has been undermined by underinvestment over a long period. We urgently need popular debates about livable and sustainable cities for the twenty first century, before it is too late. Democratic local government has a key role to play. The clock is ticking: when will the alarm ring for the demise of the town centres, the traffic logjam, the asthma epidemic, the no-go area, the next wave of urban riots?

We need urban regeneration to mean more than improvements to small area. We need to heed Tawney's call for "reflection" so as to produce an urban planning infused with vision and commanding public support. We also need champions from practice to take forward and demonstrate the application of Agenda 21 principles linking sustainability and social equity, and not to "take things as they are and leave them as they are", as Tawney put it. We need to show that planners listen to the diversity of groups who use cities, and that we can think creatively about designing cities to meet the needs of children, women, ethnic minorities, the disabled and the elderly.    

In all of this there is a very important role for the profession. Professions have often been attacked, not least by academics, for their elite nature, the power they appropriate through obfuscation and mystique. In particular there have been and continue to be plenty of critics of the planning profession, not least amongst its own members who feel the subscription is a form of legalised extortion. Of course there is some truth in all of this: yes, professions are about power; yes, planners have lacked the kind of narrow coherent body of knowledge that others lay claim to; yes, if all you see your subscription as buying is the right to put letters after your name, the price may seem high. But, none of these are sufficient interpretations about what this profession is about; as Tawney suggests a lack of understanding of the past points people to the wrong direction for the future.

At a time when we have recently and so sadly lost our foremost planning historian, Professor Gordon Cherry, some reference to the history of the profession is timeous. We are all here today because of a discussion in a railway carriage at Easter 1909. The discussion was started and led by a man from Edinburgh, Thomas Adams, and took place somewhere between Germany and France, as he and his colleagues were returning from a National Housing Reform Council visit to Germany. Adams' proposition was that a professional body would be needed to train people to work the new planning provisions of the 1909 Act, to act as a forum for all the environmental professions and to sponsor research into planning problems.

Adams became the first President of the Institute. He rejected the view of contemporaries like Unwin who argued that town planning was a branch of architecture. In terms of the quotation from Tawney, Adams could see where that particular road led. He was critical of the extent to which the RIBA identified town planning with civic splendour and expensive developments, and he argued: "It is not the architect qua architect who is best fitted to become a town planner". Rather Adams saw town planning as involving an amalgam of skills and understanding from other professions; "there is room, not only for the municipal engineer, and not only for the architect, but for men who have studied the question from other points of view, the doctor, the economist, the housing reformer" (Proceedings of the Housing and Town Planning Conference of the Institute of Municipal and County Engineers, West Bromwich, 1911, E & FN Spon).

Adams' vision of a Town Planning Institute expanded the idea of town planning from only the visual or the engineering aspects of development. He also argued that planning was not just a technical exercise or bureaucratic routine. Town planning and being a town planner involved a commitment to "social reconstruction" (Simpson, 1985, pp.63-68). The Institute provided the agency to give expression to, and to defend, the view that the city needs to be understood and managed as a physical, economic and social complex. Giving that view academic respectability was the towering contribution to the formation of the Institute made by another Scot, Patrick Geddes:

                "Town planning is not something which can be done from above, on general principles easily laid down, which can be learned in one place and imitated in another... it is the development of a local life, a regional character, a civic spirit, a unique individuality, capable of course of growth and expansion, of improvement and development in many ways, and profiting too by the example and criticism of others, yet always in its own way and upon its own foundations." (Cities in Evolution, 1915)  

We are at a time when we need to reflect and find the right road forward, for towns and cities here and abroad, for planning and for the Institute. A critical understanding of our past can help. We need to press the case for planning and managing places, with Adams' commitment to "social reconstruction", a planning that follows Geddes in seeking to enhance "a local life, a regional character, a civic spirit". This needs to be done in the context of the kind of urban changes that I sketched at the outset.

We need to hold on to that early vision of a profession that works with other professions, happily draws ideas from other disciplines, listens also to non-professionals, but above all is about taking an overview, seeing visual, environmental, social and economic aspects to a problem, and working with people to produce practical answers inspired by a vision of a better quality of life for all.

Last but not least we need to remember that the profession exists to serve the public by ensuring that its members are appropriately educated and have a commitment to a set of ethics, and to advance understanding through research. There is a clear trend towards smaller organisations with flatter hierarchies, and a movement from bureaucratic administration to greater discretion, initiative and management responsibility for everyone in the organisation. These new conditions make professional responsibility and a learning culture more important than ever.

The RTPI therefore has a role to play in 1996. Here, then, is a manifesto:

        *     A broader based Institute, more representative of all those involved in urban, rural and regional planning.

        *      A more active, outward-looking Institute.

       *     Encourage flexibility and diversity in planning education. There is a clear need for specialisation in practice which must be reflected in professional training.

        *     An increased proportion of Institute funds should go to the Branches

        *     A comprehensive Planning Aid service serving all-comers in all parts of the country.

        *     Make the Institute a more effective pressure group, with one or two full-time research officers, taking a stand on topical issues auch as:  

                              -  the deficiencies of the reorganised local government planning system;

                              - company cars and inadequate public transport;

                               - cut-backs on funds for house improvement - cut road building instead;

                          - the government's proposals for land, which will be cumbersome, will not prevent speculation and will be easily reversible when there is a change of government.

             *   Sever all links with the South African Institute of Town and Regional Planners and do not accept advertisements for planning posts in South Africa.

(Radical Institute Group Manifesto, Planning, 6 June 1975).

                     During 1996 I hope we can implement the bits we have still not reached!


P.Geddes, "Cities in Evolution", Ernest Benn, 1915.

H.E.Meller, "The Ideal City", Leicester University Press, 1979.

Proceedings of the Housing and Town Planning Conference of the Institute of Municipal and County Engineers, West Bromwich, 1911, E & FN Spon.

M.Simpson, "Thomas Adams and the Modern Planning Movement: Britain, Canada and the US, 1900-1940" Mansell, London.

R.H.Tawney, "The Acquisitive Society"

J.Jones, "Poverty triggers UK diet crisis", The Observer 21 January 1996.

United Nations, "World Urbanization Prospects 1990: Estimates and projections of urban and rural populations and of urban agglomerations", United Nations, ST/ESA/SER.A/121, New York, 1991.

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