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British planning as a roaring success story

03 November 2016 Author: Ian Wray

Liverpool _Pier _Head _from _ALbert _Dock

 

This is the text of Ian Wray's speech to the recent RTPI General Assembly meeting.

 

Think about New England and what do you see: clap board houses, tidal inlets, sail boats in the breeze, moonlight in Vermont?

 

A visit a couple of weeks ago from a University of Pennsylvania 'charette' swiftly dispelled those images.

 

Outside Boston, New York and one or two favoured places, the New England story is of rust belt towns, overloaded or decaying infrastructure (road, rail and air), struggling city centres, deindustrialisation and deprivation.

 

Penn were over here to compare the Northern Powerhouse with New England and explore the case for high speed rail on the New York to Boston axis. They pulled in (and brought with them) a huge range of experts and speakers and conducted whistle stop tours of the northern cities.

 

In their responses to the North one absolutely consistent thread prevailed.

 

In the words of one student: 'You are 40 years ahead of us'.

 

He meant that positively.

 

To be sure we have made mistakes in planning and urban policy since the war.

 

But we have got so much right: regenerated city centres, new tram systems, control of sprawl, the green belt, the national parks, well maintained motorways, historic building conservation, extensive and well used commuter rail systems, new towns, fast rail connections to London (with high speed rail on the horizon), plentiful port and airport capacity.

 

I took a small group round Liverpool. They'd never visited before and their preconception was of 'Detroit by the Seaside' - a rotting seaport in terminal decline.

 

We met at Lime Street Sation and walked past St Georges Hall, one of the greatest neo classical buildings in Europe. Already reality belied image: 'Is that really just a banqueting hall?'.

 

Next into the Central Library. Just one word from a former Fulbright scholar as we entered the restored dome of the Picton Reading Room: 'Wow'.

 

Then on to Liverpool One (Grosvenor’s £1 billion new heart for Liverpool which has taken it back up to into the top five retail centres). Then the Bluecoat, the World Heritage Site, the underground rail network, the waterfront, inside the dome of the Dock Company building, the bas reliefs on the tunnel vent shaft, Albert Dock, the waterfront and Liverpool 2 (Peel’s £400 million new deep sea terminal, roughly doubling the port’s capacity and accommodating for the biggest container ships in the world).

 

They were just bowled over. Their conclusion: this really is a vibrant city.

 

Planners were so often knocked by David Cameron's governments.

 

But that's not how informed outsiders read it. They think we have almost got it right.

Ian Wray

Ian Wray

Ian Wray is a Visiting Professor in Geography and Planning and Visiting Fellow in the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy and Practice, University of Liverpool. He was Chief Planner, Northwest Development Agency, 2000–2010.