Whilst on holiday a few weeks ago I heard the sad news that Professor Sir Peter Hall had died. The world of town planning, transport, economic development and urban policy is a poorer place as a result.
There have been several obituaries published (the best one I have read is here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/11008953/Professor-Sir-Peter-Hall-obituary.html). Peter was a colossus of the world of town planning and urban policy. He was prolific and highly relevant in his work. For those that met him and worked with him he was kind whilst challenging and absolutely infectious in his enthusiasm. In an era when too many academics, “urbanists”, and town planners talk and write in theoretical constructs and impenetrable jargon, he had an ability to communicate and write well and clearly, and to genuinely influence the real world.
His ideas, many of them considered bold and outlandish at the time, often became reality. Peter was hugely influential in developing the original visions for projects such as the Thames Gateway, London’s Docklands, Stansted as London’s third Airport, Enterprise Zones, the M25, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (which made enabled the regeneration of Kings Cross and Stratford, and thus made London 2012 possible), Crossrail, HS2, Garden Cities, and plans for better East-West rail across the north.
It was Peter in his Paper Heathrow – A Retirement Plan (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/planners-call-for-heathrow-to-retire-479971.html) who first suggested a new London Airport in the Thames Estuary long before the phrase “Boris Island” had been invented (he would have been turning in his grave this week as the Davies Commission ruled out this bold option and instead opted for the muddling-though Heathrow solution).
I had the pleasure of working with Peter on several projects. His vision, foresight and knowledge helped develop the concept of the Thames Gateway as one of Europe’s most significant regeneration projects. I worked with him early in my career on an economic strategy for the Thames Gateway, and later when advising Government on where to prioritise investment in growth projects in the area. I remember a seminar in which senior Civil Servants sat in awe as he displayed a combination of broad strategic insight with encyclopaedic knowledge of the issues on the ground.
Peter cared deeply about the north-south divide and in particular the plight of places such as his hometown of Blackpool. I worked with him on a report in 2005 which predicted that future public spending cuts would lead to the London and South East economy pulling away from the rest of the UK (see: http://www.economicsuk.com/blog/000199.html, and http://www.southwest-ra.gov.uk/media/SWRA/RSS%20Documents/Technical%20Documents/Regional_Futures_Report.pdf). This was not a popular or common view at the time, but proved to be accurate. I also worked with him on a project to inform the development of a housing policy for the cities of the north of England, which recognised the growth potential for many existing neighbourhoods and the need to improve their quality of place (see: http://www.regen.net/article/606314/damning-critique-housing-policy).
Peter had a huge passion for railways, and generated lots of bold ideas. This could be a problem. I remember once expecting written input on international comparisons and strategic insights for east London, only to be sent a detailed paper on signalling and service patterns on the North London and Barking to Gospel Oak Lines! But whilst my economic strategy now gathers dust on a shelf, his idea of a high quality London Overground orbital rail service is now a hugely successful reality (see: http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21587223-how-one-railway-line-helped-change-way-londoners-commute-loop). I remember him being uncharacteristically quiet during one meeting on the challenges of connectivity in the Thames Gateway. At the end he handed me a piece of paper (which carelessly I have since lost) on which he’d sketched a plan for extending the Jubilee Line from North Greenwich to Ebbsfleet to open up a series of major development sites.
Recently Peter argued that to maximise the economic benefits of HS2 we need to integrate it with better local and regional rail networks, a point that has been grasped firmly now by Sir David Higgins. Earlier this year he asked me to speak at a seminar http://www.sintropher.eu/sites/default/files/images/editors/Conference_Proceedings/Seminar%20proceedings%20final%20version%20rs.pdf) which looked at this topic and the issue of how we value (or undervalue) transport investment.
Peter was 82 when he died. In his final weeks and months his work became even more prolific (he published hundreds of articles and books during his life). He was always willing to argue against prevailing orthodoxies when necessary (as a Member of Lord Rogers Urban Taskforce, he refused to put his name to the recommendation that our housing growth needs could be met without building on greenfield land). But there was a real urgency in his last few months. He railed against the emergence of a prevailing view that town planning was a problem and a barrier to growth. In his final book “Good Cities, Better Lives” he argued the UK has much to learn from cities in France, Germany and Scandanavia in long term planning for growth, regeneration and liveability (http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jan/17/uk-planning-expert-peter-hall-britain-wrong).
Whilst it is difficult to sum up concisely his work and influence, I would point to the title of one of his articles last year, More Planning is Needed, Not Less, (http://www.planningresource.co.uk/article/1212381/context—planning-needed-not-less), and the final sentence of that article: “What’s needed is the will and the imagination.”