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Blind Man’s ‘Bluff’ - An alternative vision for Britain’s Imperilled Future (Part 1)

Posted on February 8, 2013 by Professor Benfield There have been 0 comments

Along with the rest of the world, over the next 40 years the UK faces rapid population growth, pressure on land, water, energy and other resources, and an administrative legacy that even some Ministers of the Crown see as ‘not fit for purpose’.

Against this background arguments surrounding the HS2 routes are diversionary and destined to lead us all up a blind alley. But it is not too late to avoid this. With these routes now determined, politicians and planners should revisit projections and engage citizens in the quest to build a truly inspiring Britain.

Caveats from the past - Britain’s failure to adapt to global change will prejudice its future.

Déjà vu

BBC’s Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme recently gave me a profound sense of déjà vu. It took me back to Istanbul in 1994 and a paper I gave to a conference of Town & Country Planners. The city’s dense, poorly built, medium and high rise apartment blocks with nearby squatter settlements made it an appropriate location for my subject – Futurology – Planning’s Missing Element.

As Today’s announcers discussed the HS2’s route extensions from Birmingham to Leeds & Manchester, I realised what should have been clear to me in Istanbul. No one was really listening.

That’s not strictly true, since a couple of people did ask for copies of my detailed paper. But, by and large, my questioning of the role of ‘planners’ and the function of ‘planning’ was either too ‘off the wall’, too complex, or simply just too far-fetched to be of any immediate practical, or academic use and interest to most of them.

Of course what I said then could have been poorly delivered rubbish. So I checked out an archive copy to avoid going off at half cock. To my surprise, while it could have been better written, I found its central argument as fresh and relevant today as it was then. Moreover it indirectly anticipated my recent argument[i] that the current focus on HS2 is a diversion which misses major opportunities for the UK.. One could say “they” are still not listening.

Who Plans What?

Intrinsically planning is, or should be, about futures.  In practice it is often subverted to the short-term will of politicians – the planner’s paymasters - intent on securing re-election and retaining power.

This begs questions like:-

  • Who should plan and how should these futures be foreseen?
  • Should a re-active or pro-active approach be taken to the ‘management of change’?
  • Are cultural, social and economic futures dependent on planning's urban outcomes?

Now trends in business and management clearly influence economic, political and social outcomes in the medium and long term future.  Arguably they also impact on the relevance of planning, making even those plans presently being prepared out of date before they are finalised.  Planner’s need to ‘see’ the trends as well as listening to the trend setters.

European Evidence

My own research across Europe[ii] observed widespread lack of foresight and monitoring mechanisms at national and local authority levels. This rendered towns and cities vulnerable to rapid and damaging change wrought by, for example, superficially unrelated technological, political and national infrastructure change.

From this I concluded that an essential ‘missing element’ was, and still is, the use of "futurology"[iii] as a tool of long term planning and development.  This I believe is well illustrated by the HS2 debacle. In a sense “they” are all playing Blind Man’s “Bluff”

At both national and local levels many authorities lack the strategic concepts that would, in my view, enable them to make the necessary quantum leaps in ideas and techniques required for future plan making considerations.

Speed of Change – or lack of it.

Twenty years ago that doyen of aspiring managers and TV ‘Trouble-shooters’ personality Sir John Harvey-Jones, former Chairman of ICI, wrote that “any organisation which does not maintain an adequate rate of change on the run will be forced to make changes which are hurried, ill-considered and ill thought out”[iv].

This is certainly what seems to be lacking at the sharp end of the planning profession and in the political HS2 considerations.  Change is coming from every source.  Huge macro-economic changes. Complete changes in the competitivity of different countries.  Continuous changes in distribution costs, and so on.  Every form of technology is changing faster than it has ever been known to change before.

While he referred to just one sector, Harvey-Jones’ words ring as true today as they did then, "... the rate of development of information technology is absolutely frightening, even on a logarithmic scale." Looking back, no doubt many readers will recognise the truth of this.


Those responsible for the future of society, for making policies and plans which will affect people’s lives for perhaps centuries to come, need to think in a more flexible way.  They need a more modular approach, so that the building blocks can be assembled in a thousand different ways.  They need to remove the blindfolds and unstop their ears in order to picture how modern, changing organisations and societies will work in the future.

“The thing that is most certain is that in the future they will work quite differently than in the past.  But the limitations on these changes really do not lie in the fields of technology, they lie in the creativity and imagination of people” [Harvey-Jones, 1993, p112]

Further Links & References

[i] How High Speed Rail could rescue our economy CIOB Review March 2012 + Benfield ATT Group blog

[ii] Injustice in Planning in Europe – Newcastle University, 1997

[iii] Futurology: The study or forecasting of potential developments, as in science, technology, and society, using current conditions and trends as a point of departure.

[iv] Harvey-Jones 1993 “Managing to Survive” London, BCA/Hienemann

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