Urban planning is one sector of the British economy which remains abnormally attached to the idea of central planning. Despite over a century of clear evidence to the contrary, planners and government policy makers alike remain glued to the idea that they can anticipate the needs, movements and behaviours of the people who live, work and play in the environments they create.
This centralised approach, a new paper by the Adam Smith Institute argues, is preventing Britain’s town centres from adapting to the challenges presented by the internet age. Shuttered shops, lifeless high streets and windswept streets are all too common in Britain today as government policy compels councils to limit retail and other developments into fixed separate zones, separating shops from their users.
Ever since the first postwar new towns appeared in 1948, planners have taken this kind of approach. Towns like Stevenage and Harlow had carefully planned public spaces and designated areas for each activity residents would need. It didn’t take long for these plans to fall apart as changing behaviours and the unpredictability of human activity led to empty squares, abandoned retail units and hastily provided alternative facilities.
The same ill thought out approach is now strangling our older town centres. Towns like Stafford, the paper argues, are unable to grow and adapt as retail development is concentrated into their historic cores where there is little potential for shops to grow and adapt to a shifting market.
There is a lengthy technical argument to be had about the economic benefits and disbenefits of combining or segregating different land uses in town centres, but the fundamental underlying problem is that central government planners cannot anticipate what different towns and the people in them will need. Top-down planning rarely leads to anything other than disaster, and until planners recognise the reality that real individual people will not follow the prescriptions of their idealised models, we will continue to be blighted with inactive town centres and failing regional economies.