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Planning finally starts to think big and migrates across the Channel

One hundred years ago, the world was enthralled with the idea of planning. Nowhere, except in military circles, was there actually a planning regime in place, but the chattering classes of Europe and America were afire with the town planning ideas of Ebenezer Howard, Tony Garnier and Patrick Geddes - particularly Geddes, whose two books City Development and Cities in Evolution made the crucial connection between land use planning and radical politics - just as they were with the economic planning preached by John Maynard Keynes and the eugenics of Houston Stewart Chamberlain.

As the century blundered on through two world wars and the periods of recovery that followed them, planning came and went, as did the political programme of the rulers of Russia, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Britain and elsewhere.

And as it migrated it invariably encountered the unavoidable truth of the crushing military axiom attributed to Karl von Clausewitz: 'No plan can survive its first contact with reality.'

This seesawing should have been the end of planning as a credible programme for largescale actions to be taken within a reasonable time, but it was not.

The destruction wrought by the two world wars meant the inevitable encounter with reality was always delayed by a period of reconstruction - or unplanned development - which neatly dovetailed with the next war and the next period of unplanned reconstruction. By this means, planning as a paper exercise attracted more and more uncritical support in a cumulative fever of excitement, solely because it never had a chance to do what it always claimed it could do. So when disillusion finally broke in it was all the more bitterly felt.

In Britain, when town planning finally got its feet under the table in the golden age of the 1960s, it gave rise to amazingly ambitious projects like new towns in Scotland, urban motorways in London, rooftop car parks, Corbusian shopping centres and high-rise tower blocks, all according to plans that were abandoned before they were finished and were never resurrected in their entirety. This decade, so extravagantly denounced for years afterwards by planners themselves, inevitably led to a retreat into detail. After the penniless 1970s, town planners ostentatiously devoted themselves to policing the use of uPVC replacement windows, while out-of-town superstores with huge car parks multiplied without restraint.

By the end of the 20th century, planners had had enough of evicting the occupants of Wendy houses, despite the tears of their occupants. Once again on the march, they had a hankering for big projects and by chance they were perfectly in sync with the housing market. Everywhere, local councils, at their wits'end as a result of government demands for millions of new houses, were scouring the countryside for disused Rover dealerships to turn into dwellings.

In the South East, where the problem was most acute, bigtime planning came to the rescue. After announcing that they were looking at 'a range of measures' to deal with the problem, Kent County Council planners unaccountably publicised only one: the suggestion that up to 10,000 Kent households might decamp to northern France, 'where houses are much cheaper' and commute daily through the Chunnel to England, where jobs are plentiful. In this suggestion, whatever its ultimate fate, we see for the first time in 100 years, planning on the scale envisaged by the pioneer planners of the last century.

'We have to explore every idea there is', a councillor is reported to have said. 'People already commute across land borders, so why shouldn't we do it across the Channel?' Why not indeed?

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