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Superannuated planners of Britain, unite.

I DIPPED the other night into a favourite bit of a favourite bedside book, Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium. When you hit a certain age, it has a certain poignancy: at 72 you see what, at 63, he was driving at.

That is no country for old men. The young In one another's arms, birds in the trees--Those dying generations--at their song, The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long Whatever is begotten, born, and dies. Caught in that sensual music all neglect Monuments of unageing intellect.

I fell to wondering what a reincarnated Yeats would make of the world of 2004, the world of instant celebrity (which he'd have enjoyed, as long as he was it) and instant multimedia sensation. Given his endless fights in Dublin over the quality of the repertoire of his beloved Abbey Theatre, you can guess the overall answer might be, not much. But then I got taken back to 1964, a year they seem to be celebrating now for no better reason that it happened 40 years ago.

That August I first flew the Atlantic and fell instantly in love with America. I can recall the moment: it was in Washington Square in New York, and the host of a summer event for kids was trying to get them to dance to a Latin American rhythm. 'Come on, guys,' he cajoled them, 'you can make it.' I caught the raw enthusiasm, the vitality, the perennial optimism that made America great.

Days later, in a Pittsburgh hotel room, I watched Lyndon Baines Johnson's Democratic nomination speech: 'I truly believe that we someday will see an America that knows no North or South, no East or West--an America that is undivided by creed or color, and untorn by suspicion or strife. The Founding Fathers dreamed America before it was. The pioneers dreamed of great cities on the wilderness that they crossed. Our tomorrow is on its way. It can be a shape of darkness or it can be a thing of beauty The choice is ours, it is yours, for it will be the dream that we dare to dream.' Trite, no doubt, but it took the convention by storm: charisma of a special kind was what Johnson had plenty of, and it sold his Great Society to a party that was otherwise still deeply divided by the rifts of the Civil War.

Back home, 1964 was a kind of annus mirabilis for planning. The previous November, they had brought out the Buchanan report on Traffic in Towns; Buchanan became the first ever planner to achieve real media fame. That March the government had published The South East Study 1961-1981, with its proposals for major new cities at what later became Milton Keynes as well as Newbury (which got shifted across the downs to Swindon), Ipswich (which didn't happen), and Ashford (which would happen 40 years late). The government had passed an act to create a Greater London Council and was busy preparing for the first elections, which would return Labour to power on a bold plan to build hundreds of miles of urban motorway for the capital.

Everywhere, up and down the country, plans for new towns were in the making. I got involved myself, not long after, producing one for Mid-Wales. With me was one of the oddest but most academically brilliant bunch who could ever have been involved in a planning enterprise: they included John Dunning, now one of the world's top international development economists; John Goddard, now Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Newcastle; Sir Christopher Foster, later Professor at the LSE and Mrs Thatcher's privatisation guru; and Sir Alan Wilson, recently retired from the Vice-Chancellorship at Leeds to become the first Director-General of Higher Education. Tom Hancock produced a brilliant masterplan for a linear city along the Severn Valley, dammed to make an artificial lake. The Welsh turned against the idea and Tom and I combined to transfer the lake to the masterplan for Peterborough, where you can see it today: we called it Lake Hancock.

There's a point to this reminiscing, which is: people took planning seriously then. Anyone with a half-good idea found themselves instantly writing for the print media and shuttling to the BBC's old Lime Grove TV studios, where they did the great current affairs programmes, Tonight and Panorama. I remember a night travelling around London with Panorama's Richard Dimbleby, founding father of the dynasty, in his Rolls-Royce; they did well for themselves in the media, even then.

And not just there: papers as varied as The Guardian and the Evening Standard employed their own planning correspondents, people serious and knowledgeable enough to be invited to join on official committees and royal commissions. In many ways, planning then occupied the same position as architecture now: it was seen as the ultimately glamorous profession, involved in creating a bright new world.

Central to that Zeitgeist was an almost theological belief that the new world was going to be bright, a belief that we then lost somewhere along the way in a welter of recrimination and reversal and handwringing over opportunities lost or opportunities botched. Planning and planners, which then stood at the summit of popular fame and popular regard, have now plunged almost to the bottom of the abyss, blamed for mistakes that other people made and for designs that other professions did. It's richly ironic that the architects, who made some of the most basic mistakes of that era (above all the high-rise schemes that later got demolished), emerged relatively unscathed.

We have short memories, getting shorter, and we need antidotes against collective amnesia. If I'm not seriously mistaken, a second golden era of planning is just beginning to dawn in this country. In the Sustainable Communities strategy and in the Northern Way, government is again thinking strategically big, just as in the 1960s. There are scores of major regeneration schemes, some of great complexity, and town expansions. Smart young people, who spot the trends, are again crowding to enter the planning schools--ironically, after half of them have shut down. There's a huge job of work to do, and--until those students graduate--too few good people to do it.

All of which is uncannily reminiscent of the spirit of 1964. No country for old men--but some of us may need to hang on a couple of years, until the young escape from each others' arms. Superannuated planners of Britain, unite; you have nothing to lose but your Zimmerframes.

Sir Peter Hall is Director of the Institute of Community Studies and Professor in the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London, and is President of the TCPA. The views expressed here are his own.
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Title Annotation:Planing World
Author:Hall, Peter
Publication:Town and Country Planning
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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