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Imagining the future beats planning or predicting

Paul Finch
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Architects are far better at the prediction game in the short term than media types or planners, says Paul Finch

A recent event in Harlow saw a group of movers and shakers speculating about the future of the former new town and wondering what it might be like when it celebrates its centenary in 2047. The intention of the event was to stimulate ideas, not to redraft the local plan, and was all the better for it.

In general, trying to predict the future is a mug’s game. This doesn’t stop the Today programme from giving its daily impression of Psychic News, telling us what is going to happen, rather than what actually happened yesterday and explaining why. It is a formal of mental idleness in which reporters become ‘experts’ in futurology. They are about as expert as Today’s sports staff are in predicting horse-race winners, ie not at all.

In general, trying to predict the future is a mug’s game

Media types fall for the phoney predictions of other organisations because they recognise their own modus operandi at work and assume it must therefore be sensible. That is why, along with tired old Remnants, they embarrassed themselves with their adoption of Project Fear nonsense about emergency budgets and economic collapse. However, no admission of embarrassment, let alone apology, is forthcoming.

Actually, architects are far better at the prediction game in the short term, engaging in writing ‘the history of the immediate future’ as they make proposals for buildings and places which, assuming the planning system agrees, are likely to be delivered.

Planners themselves often appear to be 20 years ahead of the game or 20 years behind it, endlessly promoting what the market doesn’t want to supply, or blocking what it does. Labour’s big support for office-building makes me laugh when you remember how, until quite recently, it was regarded as devil’s work.

Tories are no better. A ludicrous article in The Spectator by Matthew Parris last week claimed that the housing market is an investment vehicle which should be likened to a market in umbrellas, with investors buying up stock and renting them out, creating a market bubble which no one has an interest in bursting.

Apart from the fact that he could have used the historic example of the tulip bubble, it is hard to see what he was getting at. Umbrellas aren’t like housing. There is no shortage of umbrellas of every shape, size and cost. You can’t live in an umbrella. They don’t last for two centuries. And so on.

What he didn’t address was the real reason for the housing shortage. Not so long ago we had four major suppliers of housing: housebuilders, housing associations, local authorities and new towns. All were contributors to net additional stock every year. Two of the four (ie the public sector) are pretty much out of the game, hence the shortage, exacerbated (particularly in London) by inward migration and diminishing household size. We have a big gap to fill before we embark on more net additional housing over the next decade. By the way, Matthew, there is no public-sector production of umbrellas.

Conservatives, ever since the decision to sell off council homes cheaply, have been averse to the creation of public sector-led supply. New Labour went along with this; current Labour doesn’t seem to have any idea about how to deliver anything except Momentum-type trouble. The Lib-Dems are just confused.

The one new idea Labour has come up with should send shivers down the spines of land-owners everywhere: compulsory purchase of sites required for housing at existing use prices, rather than as housing land. This is not quite the same as the Community Land Act of yesteryear, but it is a kissing cousin. Who is to say that it wouldn’t attract support from younger generations disenfranchised from home-ownership?

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