I was in Plymouth at the weekend, impressed again by its magnificent setting and proud civic history. Almost as exciting was getting a copy of the original Plan for Plymouth in my hands, lent by a friend.
A Plan for Plymouth, written by the planner Patrick Abercrombie and J Paton Watson, Plymouth City Engineer and Surveyor, was published in 1943. Agreed by the City Council in the following year, it aimed ‘out of the disasters of war to snatch a victory for the city of the future’.
I wrote about Plymouth and its plan in this earlier posting. This time I want to use the Plan itself more thoroughly to give a fuller insight into the principles and aspirations which existed at the birth of the welfare state.
Firstly, you notice the breadth and ambition of these. This could be, in the words of Viscount Astor, the Conservative mayor of Plymouth ‘no half-and-half affair’. Plymouth ‘must be rebuilt as a unity on land acquired by the public for this purpose’.
Abercrombie and Watson proclaimed a:
far-reaching scheme for the future of a city…intended to cover the whole of its existence from the comfort and convenience of the smallest house and children’s playground, to the magnificence of its civic centre, the spaciousness and convenience of its shopping area and the perfection of its industrial machine.
Abercrombie himself identified six principal aspects as ‘the background to all human planning effort’ – Industry, Communications, Community Grouping, Housing, Open Spaces and Public Services. Each is covered comprehensively in the Plan – which is is over 150 pages in length. Here I can only pick out a few key themes.
There could be few illusions then about the scale of the enterprise suggested but one senses more the confidence and belief seen in the simple (in these more cynical times, we would say naïve) view that society and the state – allies not opposites – existed to create community, safeguard the individual and elevate humanity.
The showpiece and centrepiece of the Plan was the redesigned city centre. No one would have wished the wartime bombing but one can’t miss a little excitement in the planners’ voice as they comment that the ‘almost complete destruction of the civic and shopping heart’ provided a ‘site, rarely occurring in urban existence, to replan and rebuild a Centre of really modern design’.
They admitted too to ‘one great – even monumental – feature’: ‘a Garden vista – a parkway, making use, with terraces, slopes, steps, pools, avenues, and other contrasting features, of the varying levels’ running from the station to the Hoe. This, fully realised, would be a wonderful capturing of Plymouth’s majestic setting.
For the rest, a broadly functional division of services and sectors was envisaged – an ‘orderly and economic pattern which will ensure that the daily civic and business life of the city will function smoothly’.
There could be little further detail but it was recommended an overall architectural treatment for the central area be prepared and that new buildings be approved only if they conformed to its guidelines.
To see the finished product, take a look at the earlier posting or – better still – visit Plymouth. Sadly, that great ‘Garden vista’ wasn’t completed. The rest was executed broadly in line with the original conception and rightly earns Plymouth its designation as ‘our first great welfare-state city’.
Since then the city and its commercial heart have been through some tough times but, with a sympathetic eye and an appreciation for both aspiration and achievement, I think it looks pretty good. At the very least, it’s a ‘must’ for anyone interested in twentieth century architecture and design.
Housing could rarely be quite so exciting and in design terms the Plan was modest. It certainly saw ‘no necessity to house anyone in lofty blocks of flats’ and envisaged housing on broadly garden suburb lines. But the scale of reconstruction was well understood.
The 1935 Social Survey of Plymouth found 25 per cent of Plymouth’s working class living in overcrowded conditions. Wartime damage, of course, would exacerbate these conditions and the Plan reported with some precision that 8719 new houses were needed immediately to replace the 6833 lost to bomb damage, the 986 to be lost to central redevelopment and an estimated increase of 900 new households.
In the longer-term – as slum clearance and ‘reconstruction of decayed areas’ took effect and re-zoning was implemented – a further 23,986 houses would be needed to decently house Plymouth’s people.
The Plan is reticent on how this housing would be provided, stating only that ‘convenience and amenity should be considered before price’. It was probably understood that local authorities would play a key role but impolitic or impractical to say more. By 1954, Plymouth had built 10,000 new council homes.
The Plan did, however, provide a sample scheme for the area of Stonehouse, intended to show how residential and industrial areas could co-exist with a range of housing types and open spaces. In the event, these plans were only partially implemented and made little impact.
In practice, the Plan was more interested in ‘Community’ than in the specific details of accommodation. Here it was at its most aspirational. In ‘the recently built suburbs’, the Plan felt it was ‘a rounding off, an integration’ that was required. In the new developments, housing the ‘decentralised population’, there was ‘opportunity for latest thought in seemly community design’. These, it pronounced, must be ‘absolutely first-rate’.
I focus on this aspect of the Plan because nothing, it seems to me, so strongly captures the contrasting spirit of the times. The Plan was clear that:
it is the community spirit developed from that inherent characteristic of all races in the form of mutual aid which has been mainly responsible for the development of art and knowledge in the best periods of progress in personal industry, craftsmanship and science.
This wasn’t a self-consciously left-wing politics. It was more a plain belief that we achieve more collaboratively than we achieve in competition and a conviction that individuals are strongest when rooted in and sustained by a supportive community.
It wasn’t even, in its own terms, ideology – not textbook stuff at any rate. It drew from hard-won lessons – from interwar depression and, more powerfully and more immediately, from a world war which had melded state, society and an ideal of community.
What did all this mean? It meant the conscious creation of neighbourhood units – of between 6000 to 10,000 people – formed around the catchment areas of infant and junior schools, bounded by distinct borders and possessing a ‘natural gravitation’ towards a centre comprising a church or chapel, a library, a cinema, a restaurant, café or hotel, a laundry and a health clinic. Plus, a ‘Community Building’ which:
would be under the charge of a first-rate Warden, with theatre and concert halls large enough to accommodate performances by C.E.M.A and similar organisations and should have ample club rooms.
C.E.M.A. – the Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts – had been established in 1940. It metamorphosed into the Arts Council in 1946.
Perhaps it’s this aspect of the Plan which captures the wartime spirit and its structures – and the expectation that something of its values would persevere into a new world – better than anything else.
The Plan also discusses very fully a viable transport and communications infrastructure – everything from the creation of a ‘parkway’ ring road to the eradication of unsightly advertising hoardings, the agricultural hinterland, and open spaces, the latter to be ‘regarded as not only recreation ground, but as performing the essential structural service of breaking up the urban mass’.
Much of this didn’t materialise, of course, or that which did became more mundane as life’s normal rhythms re-imposed themselves in peacetime. Economics is never kind, in any case.
With hindsight, the Plan’s one great misstep seems to be its confident assertion that Plymouth’s ‘destiny in the national economy’ was secure – ‘so long as the British Navy exists, Plymouth’s principal occupation remains’. In the fifties and sixties, 50,000 worked in the dockyards. Now that number is just 2500. Still, Plymouth is adapting and it seems a vibrant, forward-looking place.
I can’t resist one final quotation from the Plan. It may have seemed an almost commonplace ideal in its time (and certainly reflects the gendered language of the day) but now it reads as something almost utopian – more News from Nowhere than town planning and very far removed from anything that passes for ‘practical politics’ nowadays.
With the return of “community” will come the spirit of companionship unknown to the youth of yesterday who vainly sought it in the car or the cinema. If the individuality of the citizen is to be encouraged and moulded into the community, then the right sort of facilities must be found: this plan must give the craftsman, musician and painter with undiscovered talent a chance to show himself. It must be both economical and sensible to his needs, and not cramped to the niggardly possibilities of today; a plan which allows for a higher standard of living well within our grasp, with its call for space and beauty rather than for mere economy.
The description of Plymouth as ‘our first great welfare-state city’ comes from Professor Jeremy Gould. All the other quotations and illustrations (apart from the two sculptures) come from A Plan for Plymouth, published Plymouth, 1943.
For photographs and more analysis of the city centre redevelopment, read my earlier post which also contains a full list of other sources and references.
For more photographs from my trip, see my Municipal Dreams tumblr account.