AAt the start of the First World War, town planning was only in its infancy. Indeed, a hundred years later, it is difficult to appreciate how modest the beginnings of town planning as a profession and as a subject of university education were. Very few local authorities have the means to secure the services of a professional, even if they wanted to.

Later, during the government’s post-war reconstruction, when priority was given to preparing local social housing projects to meet a national need for some 40,000 additional homes, planning was again left for account. It was not until the 1960s, when the relationship between science and architecture became concrete, that academic research took on its full importance in the field of planning.

The late 1960s saw a planning boom. There was a national plan and a second wave of new towns, including Milton Keynes, Northampton and Peterborough, came into being. Each region had a regional economic planning council; the south-east strategy proposed to link London to these new towns, and other major developments on the periphery of the region, by discontinuous growth corridors along the mainline rail lines and the motorway network, then under construction . In 1967, the peak year for UK housing completions, local planning departments were reorganized to meet the challenges, staffed with versatile young planners coming out of rapidly expanding planning schools – including new and unconventional schools – with radical new curricula. .

In retrospect, it was the etching mark of a belief in a total, centralized, top-down, expert-based—but also benign—planning system. The tide quickly receded with the last days of the Wilson government – the collapse of the National Plan in 1967 and the weakening and then demise of the Ministry of Economic Affairs – and so the vision imploded because the mechanisms for implementation were lacking.

The entrance to the village of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire in 1968, just before it was developed into a new town. Photograph: Hulton Archive

Planning fell into a long downward spiral, and even then was criticized for being too prescriptive and too restrictive. A 1973 study concluded that the historic Planning Act of 1947 was too radical, assuming that developers would take the initiative, and that private developers – conspicuously seen as totally residual in a world that would be dominated by public housing – would simply respond to what the planners had told them. This rather startling assumption fell apart soon after the return of a Conservative government in 1951, elected on a promise to build 300,000 new homes a year, half of them by private developers. The contradiction remained for the next 60 years.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as deindustrialization decimated city economies, attention shifted to urban regeneration, but the overall work of urban and rural development planning remained. The Blair era saw a brief return to strategic planning: John Prescott’s Sustainable Communities Strategy of 2003, with its proposal for three major development corridors from London, had strange nuances of the almost forgotten strategy of 1967 But in 2004, voters in the northeast rejected the proposal for a democratically elected regional assembly; a tragic failure, comparable to the abandonment of the city’s regional government in 1974. Lacking democratic legitimacy for the land-use planning process, it was all too easy for the coalition to abandon the entire regional structure, taking us back to the 1980s – or perhaps a full circle, to the early 1920s.

Milton Keynes development plans
Milton Keynes development plans

Yet because in 2014 the underlying economic and demographic pressures continued more strongly than ever, the resulting tensions still loom large. We are experiencing a massive regional imbalance, where London and its surrounding region stand out from the rest of the UK economy. We are building fewer new homes than in any peacetime year since the 1920s: only two out of five of the new homes we need. And the physical result is too often dismal, inspiring strong reactions to new development proposals. Urban planning has become the villain, blamed for accelerating housing shortages, powerless to stem poor development. It seems to have lost the ability to develop good urban spaces and stands still in the face of low-end development proposals backed by repeated appeals. Planning and planners have thus gradually become residualized, returning to their marginal status of 1914: we are constantly brought back to the past.

So how do you start rebuilding the system from scratch? We don’t need less planning, but more – positive planning by well-equipped cross-functional teams, sharing a common base of understanding and working effectively to create master plans. We did it once, not too long ago: in Milton Keynes, where the Development Corporation produced plans that developers wanted to build because they thought quality meant profits. Surely we can do it again.

Emulating these achievements means revisiting planning education. While urban planning education was restructured in the 1960s with a strong foundation in the social sciences, particularly geography, sociology and economics, no such changes occurred in the architectural education. The education system continued to be firmly based on the tradition of the workshop or studio, in which students learned in small groups around an individual master: an artistic-creative tradition, not a research-scientific one. And, perversely, the architectural content of the planning, the tradition of urban design, has gradually been reduced to an absolute minimum. In the 1990s, it was possible to become a skilled planner without any architectural knowledge or sensibility.

Milton Keynes in 1976
Milton Keynes in 1976: “The Development Corporation produced plans that developers wanted to build because they found quality meant profits”

The lesson for the education system is that we can no longer – if ever could – inculcate all the multiple skills that a planner needs. They go far beyond planning and architecture in some twenty specialties, ranging from land economics to sustainable development. What is needed in education for the built environment is to expose students to cooperative working methods to achieve common and productive outcomes.

So the current state of planning presents a special version of that dilemma that George Orwell famously stated in his essay on Charles Dickens: How can you improve human nature until you change the system? And why change the system before improving human nature? The fact is that we will have to do both in parallel. We will have to rebuild a better system and educate planners and their co-professionals to operate effectively to create a better world. This should be the starting message for the next century.

The original version of this view appeared in Town Planning Review 85.5 (2014), published by Liverpool University Press.