Peter Hall: We are again the great global innovators

From the Royal Town Planning Institute's Annual Lecture, given by the Professor of Planning at the Bartlett School, University College London
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The Independent Online

The 1970s were in many ways one of the most totally depressing political decades in British postwar history. After the huge excitement occasioned by our entry into what was to become the EU in 1973, we rapidly descended into six years of paralysis and indecision, marked by the great oil crisis, huge battles between government and unions, and by the IMF crisis of 1978 which blew everything out of the water. It seemed that government had ceased to govern. Everywhere, the mood was one of "will the last person to leave please turn off the lights?"

Nowhere was this truer than in the cities. The Government incessantly preached partnership: between central and local government, between the public and private sectors. But virtually nothing happened.

As Michael Heseltine said in a speech describing the day he flew over London Docklands in the early 1970s: "There were all kinds of committees, reports, discussions, but beneath me stretched this appalling proof that no one was doing anything effective... Everyone was involved. No one was in charge."

He rapidly ended all this, and he was not at all worried about the charge was he was riding roughshod over local democracy. Well, you can hate the result or you can love it, or more likely a mixture of the two. It could have been done a little less precipitously, a little more coherently, and certainly with better physical outcomes on the ground. But certainly the London Docklands Development Committee "did things". As Wren's tomb in St Paul's says, Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

Ask yourself this question: if Heseltine had not been Secretary of State for the Environment in 1980, do you really believe the renaissance of British cities would be half as advanced as it is today? And again, the rest of the world beats a path to our door: as before, in the age when we built the new towns, we are again the great global innovators.