Obituary: Professor Peter Self

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
PETER SELF had four careers - as journalist, as university teacher of planning, as planning policy-maker and finally, in Australia, as teacher and government adviser - though he had the intellect and tenacity to have pursued many more.

It is no criticism, indeed it is a compliment, to say that he had an old-fashioned British academic style. He was a traditional liberal; he instinctively distrusted grand theory, preferring to trust common sense. That caused him to question both the planning orthodoxies of the 1960s and the anti-planning ideologies of the 1980s.

He loved argument, whether with a cabinet minister or a student, but conducted it always in the style of liberal discourse that came naturally to him. Slowly, quietly, in his very personal questioning tone, he would advance a proposition, expecting to be challenged or qualified, restating and refining his own position.

Born in London in 1919, into a comfortable middle-class family, he had a conventional education at Lancing College and then Balliol College, Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

Graduating after Dunkirk, he characteristically and courageously became a conscientious objector. In 1944 he began his first career, as a journalist and member of the editorial team at The Economist, where he continued until 1962. But that year, 1944 - a time of huge excitement about post- war reconstruction, with the publication of the two great Abercrombie plans for London - he also began extramural teaching for London University.

In 1948 Professor William Robson, whose 1939 book The Government and Misgovernment of London had provided the blueprint for the Greater London Council, brought him to the LSE, and his second career began.

This was the time of the post-war new towns and the 1947 Planning Act. Returning to power in 1951, the Conservatives set the private builders free but sought to contain the growth of the cities, and showed little enthusiasm for new towns. The birth-rate unexpectedly rose from 1955, just as slum clearance began again in earnest; something had to give. Self's first book, Cities in Flood, published in 1957, had huge journalistic verve and instantly established his reputation as the country's leading academic expert on planning questions - albeit operating outside the then Town Planning Institute (which, however, later gave him honorary membership).

He became involved in the Town and Country Planning Association in 1954, on the prompting of the formidable Frederic Osborn, who doubtless picked him as worthy successor. As with most things "FJO" planned, so it happened: Self became vice- chairman of the executive the next year, and followed the 77-year-old Osborn into the chairmanship in 1961. He did not equal Osborn's record of 17 years in the chair, but he did manage eight crucial years: the resumption of the new towns programme by a reluctant Conservative administration, the return of Labour in 1964, and the first great experiment in regional planning in the UK.

The TCPA commanded immense respect because of its constant advocacy of planned urban dispersal, and chairmanship involved regular advocacy before ministers, accompanied by successive directors: first Wyndham Thomas, who left to manage Peterborough New Town, and then, from 1967, David Hall. This political rough-and-tumble did not come naturally, but Self entered into the spirit of it, and his powerful intellectual gifts proved fully a match for the Socratic style of Richard Crossman, then Minister for Housing and Local Government.

Thus established in his third career, in the 1960s he progressed in his second: elevated to Reader (1961) and Professor (1963) at the LSE, in 1966 he helped launch one of the so-called new planning courses, the MSc in Regional and Urban Planning Studies, which continues today. An obvious choice to join the South East Regional Economic Planning Council in 1966, he achieved the distinction of sitting on it continuously until Michael Heseltine dissolved it in 1979. He prepared and gave evidence to the Roskill Commission on the Third London Airport, and this led him to write a devastating attack on the use of cost-benefit analysis in planning, Econocrats and the Policy Process (1976) - a turning-point in British planning theory and practice.

He took early retirement in 1982, aged 63, and - after a few doubts and hesitations - embarked on his fourth career as an academic in Australia, as Senior Research Fellow (1982-84) and then Visiting Fellow (until his death) at the Australian National University in Canberra. Here he joined leading Australian academics like Max Neutze and Patrick Troy to make up one of the outstanding urban research units in the world, where he played a hugely stimulating role.

The move gave him a new lease of academic productivity, with three major books, Planning the Urban Region (1982), Political Theories of Modern Government (1985) and Government by the Market? (1993). He finished his last book, Rolling Back the Market: economic dogma and political choice, only five weeks before his death, from liver cancer; it will be published by Macmillan in November.

Soon after his arrival, the Hawke government asked him to chair a major inquiry into Australian local government finance (1984-85). Self showed amazing ability not only to grasp the technical complexities but also the impacts on the ordinary person in the Sydney suburb, and his report was widely commended.

Self's old-fashioned British academic style, which he shared with many of his peers, was one of the finest achievements of the educational system that reared him and that he served with such distinction. As grand and often nonsensical theory has overcome much of academia, we have lost much of such style, and with the death of Peter Self we realise how much we have lost.

Peter John Otter Self, journalist, town planner and political scientist: born London 7 June 1919; Lecturer in Public Administration, London School of Economics 1948-61, Reader in Political Science 1961-63; Professor of Public Administration, London University 1963-82 (Emeritus); Senior Research Fellow, Australian National University 1982-84, Visiting Fellow 1984-99; married 1950 Diana Pitt (marriage dissolved), 1959 Elaine Adams (nee Rosenbloom; two sons; marriage dissolved), 1981 Sandra Gough (nee Moiseiwitsch, died 1996); died Canberra 29 March 1999.