John Burns MP
The Adam Smith Institute – arch-critics of planning – recently ‘came out’ as neoliberals.
I’m surprised it took them so long.
True, the term ‘neoliberal’ has been used mainly by academic critics of ‘free market’ thinking. But it can just act as a useful shorthand for describing the contemporary resurgence of nineteenth century laissez-faire economic thinking, leading to policies such as privatisation and deregulation.
There’s also often a political advantage to presenting yourself as defenders of freedom.
As US election guru Nate Silver noted a couple of years ago, “…[arguments] focused around fairness and equality have competed against those centred around freedom and liberty in American political discourse”.
The same has been true of the UK. But the political-cultural trend over the past 50 years, especially in western countries, has been markedly towards individual freedom and autonomy versus collectivism and statism. Neoliberals have contributed to, and benefited from, this shift.
Of course, the development of professional planning was spurred by urban conditions which especially afflicted poorer communities, and the belief (much contested by the Adam Smith Institute and others) that a better society can be brought into being in part through conscious design.
But the mistake that progressives (and relatedly, planners) can make is that, in arguing for ‘fairness’ (a more equitable society), they risk being characterised as being against liberty and choice. In an age of increasing distrust about government and politics, it’s important to argue that the state and public action can play a critical role in increasing individual freedom.
Consider our work on place, poverty and inequality. Conventional approaches to welfare reform tend to be highly individualised (and so prone to failure). We’ve argued that many national policymakers, especially in England, have neglected how better built environments can promote employment, educational achievement, good health and improved social mobility - all of which are crucial to shared prosperity.
In other words, planning can promote greater equity and opportunity – indeed, they are intimately related. You can't really be 'free', in the positive conception of liberty, if because of where you live you can't access the services and opportunities that others take for granted. Inadvertently accepting that freedom and fairness are opposing goals plays into the hands of neoliberals.
Further, as we’ve been arguing in our work on the value of planning, it’s vital that we develop a better account of markets, growth and prosperity (including through positive, public sector-led planning), lest we implicitly accept the neoliberals’ argument that 'less planning = more prosperity'.
Happily, this recognition that freedom and equity are inter-dependent also goes back to the roots of professional planning. As John Burns proclaimed at the inaugural dinner of the then Town Planning Institute in January 1914, what was envisaged was “…a movement that has for its object the emancipation of all communities from the mark of the beast of ugliness” (emphasis added).
Planning is a project for freedom. We should say this more.
Dr Michael Harris
Former Deputy Head of Policy and Research, RTPI