“managed decline”… put it in the dustbin!

a friendly dustbin in barcelona by nick wright planning, on Flickr

In the last couple of days, I’ve twice come across the thought that towns and neighbourhoods that have ‘outlived their economic usefulness’ should have a policy of ‘managed decline’.

For years I’ve thought that the UK planning system isn’t well set up for helping places that are struggling economically; places near me like Port Glasgow or Kilbirnie, for example, where the local employment base has been decimated. I’ve blogged before about this – such as my Shrinking Cities post from 2008.

But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean that we have to give up. All this talk of “managed decline” is deeply worrying. It’s like the public sector saying: this place is way too difficult for us, so let’s just shut it down.

I wouldn’t like to live in a community where there is a policy of managed decline, nor I suspect would anybody reading this. Why should anyone want to live in a planners’ dustbin?

There was a well known policy in County Durham in the 1950s and 1960s for the demolition of over 100 ‘Category D’ villages – places where mining had come and gone, and which the authorities thought had no economic future. You can see more information about it here. Only a tiny handful villages were actually demolished. People still live in all the others. Some of them are pretty, some less so. But they all have life and activity. No doubt some residents are proud of living in them, and others can’t wait to leave – just like anywhere else. But, over 50 years after these villages were consigned to the dustbin by professionals, each is still a community.

My point is this: who are we to decide whether a place should be subject to ‘managed decline’? What possible right do we as professionals or technocrats have to decide that somewhere has outlived its economic usefulness and should be closed down?

Our job should be to support local communities to make the most of what they want to achieve, not consign them to the dustbin of managed decline. No-one can predict the future. Imagine the reaction if you’d told a Glaswegian in the 1970s that their city would be a top international tourist destination 30 years later.

Everywhere has assets, and everybody has aspirations. We should work to help make those a reality, not tell them that they need to go somewhere else because where they live is a lost cause.

How do we do that? By working collaboratively with them, asking them what their aspirations are, and then using our professional knowledge, imagination and whatever resources we have to put a plan or strategy in place and help to make it reality. The solutions might not be easy and may take generations, but you can make a start with some positive thinking, imagination and collaborative effort. There are plenty of examples on this website of how to go about it.

I’d be proud to be part of a planning profession which helps communities realise their collective aspirations. But I’d be ashamed to be part of a profession which presides over managed decline simply because we don’t have the imagination to work more creatively and collaboratively. It’s managed decline that should be consigned to the dustbin, not communities.

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