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Planning in the UK has changed beyond all recognition over the last 100 years. It has shifted from a garden city movement, a process to deliver better quality housing, a proactive and interventionist campaign, stemming from a predominantly socialist and modernist ideology, through a period of deregulation and market dominance, to a process enabling local democratic involvement in political decisions, and onwards to a period of local space-and-place sensitivity and spatial integration. Despite political parties of all persuasions tinkering with urban planning continuously over the last 20 years in particular, it has broadened out from a narrow regulatory core. It is now charged with coordinating the spatial aspects of a range of policy agendas at local and regional scales, and to provide a mediation forum for various interests, responsive to changing conditions. And yet the image and popular representation of urban planning may have stalled in the 1960s when the modernist movement was at its height. Not only did this time pre-date any democratic public involvement in planning decision making, it also involved only the state, as opposed to the market, in urban planning interventions.

Accusations continue to abound, especially in the media, that urban planning is the full force of the Goliath bulldozer against the David community, alongside a perception that it is somehow Stalinist in form, a legacy of command and control, involving overt bureaucracy. Perhaps this says more about attitudes within a largely politically right-leaning press towards the state, the public sector and intervention generally than it says about urban planning in its own right.

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... after 100 years debate on how to plan the city, after repeated attempts – however mistaken or distorted – to put ideas into practice, we find we are almost back where we started.... That does not mean, of course, that we have got nowhere at all ... it does mean that certain trends seem to reassert themselves; perhaps because, in truth, they never went away. (Hall, 2002, pp 11-12)

Urban planning within the UK, as in so many other countries, has undergone mixed fortunes over the decades. The establishment of a modern planning process in the early 20th century to combat poor public health, inner-city squalor, bad housing development and high densities, led to a belated political acknowledgement of the need for some form of state intervention in the future form and planning of places. The grand 17th-century architecture of Christopher Wren and the bold Georgian designs for Bath and Brighton, for example, in the 18th century, paled into insignificance compared to what happened to British towns from the mid-1800s.

The Industrial Revolution, dramatic increases in the population and a shift from an agrarian to an urban society had rapidly transformed previously small towns into large urban areas. In West Hartlepool, County Durham, the town grew from a population of 4,000 in 1851 to 63,000 by 1901. The population of London doubled, from approximately one million to about two million between 1801 and 1851; it doubled again to four million by 1881, and then added another 2.5 million to reach 6.5 million in 1911.

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As discussed in Chapter One, urbanisation and industrialisation had changed the form and scale of British towns and cities. The urban planning movement had been introduced to manage the externalities of rapid urbanisation but by the time that liberal and socialist governments had put the initial elements of urban planning in place, the social and environmental damage had already been done. New legislation and new modern designs to housing and industrial activity benefited new developments; a significant proportion of poor or sub-standard 19th-century industrial legacy remained in place across Britain even by the 1950s and 1960s, and were largely untouched by urban planning and the modernist movement.

Debates in the social sciences, especially Urban Studies and Cultural Geography, have focused on spatialisation. Spatial analyses of a variety of different forms of culture and landscapes have assisted in our understanding of the concept of space within particular societies and geographies. Cinema and film have been used increasingly as one aspect of this analysis. With this chapter, an examination is provided of the British social realism films of the late 1950s and 1960s to demonstrate not the impact and benefits of urban planning and modernity, but rather the types of places left behind. There was a rash of films released in Britain from the late 1950s onwards that focused on social realistic domestic situations but which utilised the post-industrial urban landscape as a backcloth or setting. Films such as Room at the Top and A Taste of Honey were considered innovative when released, for their revelation of the British working class at a time when the working classes had been largely excluded from cinematic depictions, and their depiction of community, urban landscapes and an attachment to place.

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This book has explored the position of urban planning, and the image, representation and depiction of planning in film and photography over the last 80 years or so. It has essentially attempted to work on several levels: as a narrative of urban planning’s remarkable ability to change and adapt to different conditions, political expectations and public desires over time; as an alternative history of places and change in the built environment and – more pertinently – reactions to that change, using sources from the arts and humanities; and as a prompt to those interested and involved in urban planning to consider the story of places in ways that the public, the media and others understand. It is intended to facilitate a wide-ranging debate on these subjects at the beginning of the 21st century, and one that has been lacking for many decades. From a personal perspective, although I have worked in the field of urban planning for many years, I have always found these aspects of planning – the image and representation of planning and places, the role of planning in achieving wider societal benefit and the depiction of cities through history – the most interesting and challenging, and sometimes the most difficult, to analyse and comprehend.

The fact that my dilemmas and uncertainties about these issues still exist today, two decades after I first graduated, perhaps lie at the root of the problem of urban planning and places themselves. My uncertainties with planning correspond to questions of planning as a self-perpetuating activity, devoid of a philosophical core, lacking a strong concern with place meaning and identity, and a continual source of criticism politically and in the media.

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The introduction of film and early television in Britain enabled the arts, factual material and expert opinion to be communicated to a wider audience (Attenborough, 2002). This was particularly true of town planning, which was in its ascendancy during the 1940s and 1950s, and was playing a prominent role in coordinating physical restructuring, rebuilding or planning new cities, and helping to create better societies (Aldridge, 1979; Hardy, 1991). At a time when planning in the UK possessed very little by way of formal public consultation processes to enable the public to either receive detailed information or express opinion about the form of change occurring (Ward, 2002), the media and film played a vital role in communicating plans and visions to a wider audience (Gold and Ward, 1997). Broadcasters found these serious (possibly even dull) subject matters difficult to convey and to transmit to a mass audience, and various approaches and innovative programming were attempted between the 1930s and 1970s (Wyver, 1989; Walker, 1993). One artist who played a pivotal role in developing television arts documentaries and who possessed knowledge and strong opinions on planning and development was John Betjeman (1906-84), later to become Poet Laureate.

Betjeman did not possess formal qualifications in architecture, planning or the arts, but his work as an associated editor of the Architectural Review had enabled him to gain some experience on the subject, and he had been a regular performer on arts broadcasts on the radio (Lycett Green, 1997). From the number of radio and film broadcast commissions he undertook, he appears to have relished the opportunity to utilise the new medium of television to educate and entertain the public.

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