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Stephen Byrne 1923-2012, RTPI President 1985 - An Appreciation

21 June 2012


When Stephen Byrne became President in 1985, his theme was "Economic Regeneration and the battle for the Environment". He proceeded to present an inaugural polemic of remarkable breadth and vision with no less than 37 references, surveying almost the whole planning scene, and issuing virtually a call to arms to politicians to get their economic regeneration act together. It was a Tour de Force that I and I suspect most of my professional colleagues would have been only too pleased to be able to offer as a major paper to any key conference of the day.

Those who knew him were not surprised. As he himself said, he had the great good fortune after war service, to be involved in planning from the immediate post war period first with the LCC and then a variety of roles in and around London culminating in Borough Planning Officer for Lewisham. He was later to comment to a presidential colleague on the occasion when Mrs Thatcher opened the last part of the M25, that he had worked on an "Outer Circular" 40 years before at the LCC. It had only taken that long to achieve!

That kind of background coupled no doubt with his membership of the RICS but particularly with his celebrated achievements in Nottingham as City Planning Officer, gave him great distinction as a leading light in the profession. He had a degree of accumulated insight and experience that few could command in 1985 and a Government that to some extent at least, understood the need for planning and what it could do. That led to perhaps the high point of his career when he was appointed Chief Planning Advisor to the Department of the Environment in 1986. This reflected not only the esteem with which Stephen Byrne was held, but enabled the profession through him to play such an important role in what was to follow.

It is easy to forget the importance of that period. As Government Advisor, he greatly influenced the review of the Development Plan System and the documentation that became second nature to so many of us such as PPG 1. He recognised also the need for the regeneration of the major metropolitan areas having already said as President how unfortunate it was " that in a time of crisis, it is intended to abolish the Metropolitan Counties". Perhaps less well known is that he saw through the Bill that started the Channel Tunnel project, little knowing how relevant that might later prove when he acquired a wife and second home in Brussels.

The contrast with the Government's attitude to planning today could not be more stark when, arguably, sensible planning is needed even more. Stephen Byrne was persuasive but also forthright. Had he been in a position to do so today , he would have tried to persuade ministers to see the error of their ways , but he would have had no truck with the denigration the profession has experienced recently or with the spurious claims from the Treasury that planning is an economic hindrance.

That is the measure of the man who was able to dispense wise and informed professionalism through his knowledge and integrity over many years and to whom we are all indebted. Many Presidents have found themselves referred to in the media as "the country's top planner" but none wore that accolade as easily and rightly as Stephen Byrne. I am glad to have known him.

Martin Bradshaw, RTPI Past President

Since the above article was posted, the following has been received:

"Thank you for Martin Bradshaw's appreciation of Stephen Byrne, following his recent death. I would like to add a small note on his equally memorable contribution as President of the Town & Country Planning Summer School (now Planning Summer School) from 1989-92. He first joined the Summer School Council in 1987 but when, in late 1988, the elected president found it necessary to withdraw, he was persuaded to step in at short notice for the following summer's event at the University of East Anglia and remained in the role for the following years at Swansea and York.

It proved an inspired choice at a time when both the Councillors and Main Schools were growing to unprecedented numbers. His kind, calm and knowledgable presence throughout his years of presidency made light of the workload involved, chairing full morning sessions over 8 of 12 days, together with other presentations, hosting many important and influential speakers and guests, and creating the friendly social ambience which is at the heart of Summer School."

John Wainwright, Deputy President, TCPSS 1989-97