LONDON is being methodically rebuilt to a massive master plan, the first stage of which is to be completed this summer, the second stage in 1975, and the final stage in 2005. Nothing so comprehensive has been attempted since the great fire of 1666, when the inspired London of Christopher Wren was born.
The Londoner himself, traveling his well-worn line from home to office and home again, knows less of it than the visitor. There is the 351-foot Shell Oil tower, which is mounting cacophonously day by day to dominate the Thames’s south bank. Across the river at Millbank, behind Big Ben, rises the beginning of the 387-foot Vickers block, the first London building taller than St. Paul’s. But one really needs to explore beyond, from Peckham Rye to the Seven Sisters Road, to glimpse the scope of the great plan that rolls on toward the next century.
This plan was initiated by Lord Reith in 1941, and it still visibly bears the stamp of this purposeful Scot who earlier developed the earnest, noncommercial, and sometimes brilliant British Broadcasting Corporation. The architect of the New London Plan was the eminent professor, Sir Patrick Abercrombie. The plan is under the supervision of the London County Council, administrator of the 117 square miles of the County of London. The L.C.C. has been socialist-controlled for twenty-five years and is experienced in planning.
Its first aim is to stop London’s family from growing. The second is to move tens of thousands in overpopulated fringe areas out of the town altogether. The third is to bring into the center a quite new resident population. The fourth is to build a final city of interconnected twentiethcentury country towns, in brick and concrete, each complete in itself and set in parkland.
New space for living
At night now, the city abruptly empties and is left to visitors and janitors. The plan is to change it back to what it was, a home as well as a hotel and a workshop. The first step toward this goal is the erection of the Barbican, a community for 50,000 on a site now being prepared out of the rubble of tumble-down warehouses in the original City. The Barbican is to be a city within the City, with traffic-free squares and terraces laid out between triangular tower apartments, its own stores, schools, art center, swimming pool, roof gardens, hotels, and restaurants. Homes for another 5000 new Londoners are to be built nearby at Finsbury. In the West End, the first new private-enterprise apartment block is going up in the Charing Cross Road.
The L.C.C. meanwhile is trying hard to control the flood tide of office building. Since 1955, all applications to turn theaters into offices have been refused. Seventy large firms have been persuaded to move their main offices out of central London. Almost all industry, except immovable heavy industries along the banks of London’s river, is to be served with notices to vacate. The L.C.C. is spending $1.5 million a year to buy out those industries that own the land they stand on. The small workshops which are traditional, as in the East End, are to be housed tier on tier in tall buildings.
To gain more space for living, 20,000 Londoners are being moved out of town each year. There are 150,000 cockneys on new estates in the suburbs, 50,000 in new satellite towns, and 30,000 settled already in existing country towns.
The three million who are to stay in the county will live more spaciously in 300 “neighborhoods,” neat apartment villages lying off the main roads and linked in groups of five to sixty “communities.” Each community is to have its own senior high schools, big stores, art and technical colleges, and town halls. The aim is to provide at least four acres of park and playground per thousand people and to strive for seven acres.
A good place to get the feel of the London that is planned for 2005 is a hill in Richmond Park. From there the powerful rectangles of the regular white towers of Roehampton stand guard at intervals over a low, crowded, higgledypiggledy London, the town of the past. The effect of discipline is softened by grass and trees, and the view has beauty.
The traffic problem
The great plan, as it stands now, faces one unforeseen enemy — the automobile. “Building more roads to be filled with more cars is not the solution, as the Americans have found.” Armed with this conviction and charged by law “to preserve the best of existing London and respect its structure,” as well as build anew, the L.C.C. fights a rear-guard action to keep its New London Plan intact. But without more roads, and per haps even without a quite differently conceived city, how can the equation be solved? Hundreds of thousands of newly made commuters, moved by the L.C.C. itself from the fringes to suburbs and satellites, plus tens of thousands of new residents attracted into the very center, with their cars — what is the answer?
Into this controversy has been thrust a new political figure — Ernest Marples, eager, effervescent, efficient, and eccentric, and a selfmade man. He is a grammar school boy. He is dedicated to making good: a champion ballroom dancer and rock climber, a student of wines, an owner of vineyards in the Beaujolais district of France, a cordon bleu chef, and a strict dietician who often fasts for two weeks.
But above all, Mr. Marples is a construction man. He has, by British political custom, disposed of his holdings in Marples, Ridgeway Limited, now that he is Minister of Transport. His name, however, stays on the bulldozers and giant shovels at Hammersmith Broadway, where London’s second overpass is being built on the road to London Airport, reminding every sidewalk superintendent that Mr. Marples knows this part of his business.
Mr. Marples’ first act has been to frame a bill making himself virtual traffic dictator of London. His authority supersedes the established powers hitherto exercised by the L.C.C., the twenty-eight boroughs of the county, and almost eighty other local authorities and committees in the Greater London that reaches out beyond the county boundary.
With this authority Mr. Marples plans to tear up traffic islands in the middle of bridges and main roads, introduce a free flow of traffic at rush hours, mark plainly in white paint where motorists can park in London and where they cannot, recruit traffic wardens to free Scotland Yard from the tedious duties that now take up more than half its policemen’s time, scatter the town with parking meters, and put car parks underneath the trees and lawns of Hyde Park. He is in constant touch with Baltimore, which he considers provides America’s finest example of traffic engineering, to keep this fiveyear plan up to date. He is working on a ten-year plan to follow. And he has set up a long-term study group to “produce a Design for Living at the turn of the century.”
The car seems likely to bring even more profound changes to Britain. For it provides a special challenge to an island so crowded, so settled, and so old. Already there is an automobile for every one and a half yards of main road; there are forty-five cars to every mile of road, lane, and byway. By 1975, the year of the end of stage two of the New London Plan, there will, at the present rate, be just eighteen inches of main traffic highway to each car.
The auto industry
Many economists, as well as many planners, are beginning to warn that the automobile industry is expanding too fast. It was a shock to some of them when the budget produced no extra tax to slow the industry down, even though a new car already bears a 50 per cent sales tax. But demand is still so urgent in spite of the tax that the British industry plans to increase output by 70 per cent in three years to meet it. By 1962 production will probably be three million vehicles, three times as many as 1952.
The practical answer the critics get is that to slow down automobile investment deliberately would stop the whole economy. The automobile is Britain’s basic industry now. This simple fact is most important to the people who live in areas of what is euphemistically called these days “underemployment.” They want a share of the car industry. And they have now been promised it.
To fulfill the promise, the Conservative Government has used powers both of persuasion and direct control. It is sending the new car factories to Scotland, Liverpool, and South Wales, where unemployment is double or triple the national average, by the force of building permits and the lure of loans. The British Motor Corporation, for instance, is somewhat reluctantly planning plants in all three areas instead of Birmingham and is being helped along in one with a £9 million loan. This action, surprising to many Government supporters, may offer a key to an understanding of the puzzle of third-term Conservatism.
The economy on a knife’s edge
Macmillan’s Government is acting liberally but paternally, with one hand in its pocket and the other on the shoulder of industry. Although it is avoiding nationalization, it is taking a considerable financial interest in the steel industry. It has by main force reorganized, and will subsidize, the aircraft industry. It is going to pay for the railways (an immediate $90 million loss was accepted in this year’s budget) while “seeking ways of putting them on a business footing.” It is improving the welfare state. All these efforts have rudely shaken the Tory Party, producing within its ranks the same sort of split on matters of political principle that has plagued the Labor Party in recent years.
Instead of reducing expenditure, as was planned and promised at election time, the Tory Government this year is increasing it by nearly one billion dollars. The 1960 budget implies that taxes can never, in the foreseeable future, go much lower. The average $7000-a-year man pays 36 per cent of his income in taxes. This means that with wages and government spending rising, but with exports going a little slowly, the economy is again balancing on the knife’s edge. A very slight movement could precipitate either a balanceof-payments crisis, or another squeeze on money and credit, or both. One side of the knife is stamped “British Commonwealth,” and the other “Common Market.”
The Common Market dilemma
A deflationary policy would at once react against Commonwealth countries. It would probably cause another fall in the prices of their goods. Exclusion of Britain from the Common Market, the slight early effects of which could easily be withstood were the economy firmly placed, might even, by slowing down the rise of exports, bring on a payments crisis that could lead to that deflationary policy.
This would suggest that Britain should go into the Common Market. But Britain allows tariff-free entry in its home market to the manufactures of the underdeveloped countries of the Commonwealth. In this way it is an example to the world. Full membership in the Common Market, therefore, would force Britain to wipe out this concession, an almost unthinkable step in present circumstances. So Britain must stay out.
Meanwhile, a second force, the automobile industry, drags Britain nearer and nearer to the Common Market willy-nilly. On the Continent there is the fastest growing car market in the world. It is three times the size of Britain’s and is twice as far away from saturation. A tariff barrier to keep British-built cars out of the Common Market could be a serious blow. The British industry would probably have to set up factories on the Continent. Some of the investment that brings promise to Scotland, Wales, and Liverpool would then go instead to Germany or Italy or France. It is a cruel choice. But it has to be faced this year.