Liz Truss is wrong: planning is not a constraint on freedom, but a vital condition of it

Lewis Silkin and friend playing with a model in 1949. Image: Getty.

Liz Truss, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, made a fascinating speech to the Resolution Foundation yesterday. Most widely picked up on has been her assertion that the government needs to get to grip with housing numbers by turning NIMBYs into YIMBYs.

But most revealing of all – in what was an engagingly open performance – was Ms Truss’ assault on the Town and Country Planning Act (TCPA) 1947, which she attacked as the creation of Nye Bevan, the reddest of politicians.

Of course, the planning reforms of the Attlee government were actually steered through by Lewis Silkin: Nye had his hands full with the gold he was feeding to the British Medical Association. But what was most revealing about the characterisation was its fundamental conception of planning laws as being a socialist restriction on the free market, the assumption that, in effect, planning is to housing as nationalisation is to industry – a constraint on freedom. 

In fact, the Attlee government’s land reforms were, like its other great achievements – the NHS and the welfare state – a product of deep reflection and nonpartisan conclusion. The underlying principles of the TCPA 1947 drew from work commissioned by Chamberlain’s government in the late 1930s, and published during the war.

First among these was the Barlow Commission, whose formal title was “The Royal Commission on the Distribution of the Industrial Population”. It addressed pressing urban issues: both the sprawl of London, through the 1930s houses that line the arterial roads, and the industrial dereliction of the north. A key moment in the New Towns movement, it also gave some intellectual backbone to the notion of a planned approach to development.

It was followed up by the Scott report into land use, Uthwatt into land value, and Reith into New Towns. Far from the socialism “red in tooth and claw” that the Chief Secretary believes underpins planning, this work was started by a Conservative government, continued by a Coalition government and legislated for by a Labour government.

The kind explanation here would be that Ms Truss should simply read more history. But the truth is probably that she has a knee jerk response to the word “planning” which she seems to believe can only refer to a Stalinist five year plan. It will come as a great shock to her if she ever found out how much strategic planning the Army does, let alone industry. Ms Truss beware, socialism is everywhere.


The danger in the Chief Secretary’s thinking is obvious. The Attlee government gave us National Parks, the Green Belt, New Towns and the biggest ever act of localism in history – the transfer of development to local councils. Attacking NIMBYs – politicians blaming voters – is the laziest political response to the housing crisis imaginable. It’s the job of politicians to lead, to inspire, to win arguments. And when the arguments need strengthening, ministers shouldn’t be afraid to reach out for assistance.

The scale of the housing and development challenge in the UK – and it’s multifaceted nature – demands the intellectual heft of a modern day Beveridge. And no Cabinet Minister should ever knock the Town and Country Planning Act. It gave us the best ever vehicle for swift action: the development corporation. By combining land ownership, development and planning powers, it can supercharge a response to a crisis.

I await Ms Truss’ discovery that Attlee produced a surefire way to bypass NIMBYs and deliver housing.

John McTernan was a senior adviser to the Blair government

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.