Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Let Us Now Praise... Lewis Silkin

The 1945 Labour government headed by Clement Atlee was packed full of giant political figures. So much so that some of its members tend to get unfairly neglected, chief among them the great Lewis Silkin.

Back in his time on the London County Council, Silkin had been instrumental in introducing the green belt policy. Now in government, he introduced three massive pieces of legislation that transformed the country just as surely as did the more celebrated health and education reforms of the time: the New Towns Act in 1946, the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, and the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949.

These were genuinely socialist reforms, for which campaigners had been fighting for years. In the case of the Planning Act, the struggle to gain democratic control of development went back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution: a century on from the Public Health Act of 1848, Silkin's Act finally made all new development subject to statutory oversight by local authorities. It also allowed compulsory purchase, facilitating new construction for the common good, and introduced the concept of listing buildings of architectural or historical merit, so that they might be preserved for the nation.

No more were the concerns of individuals to be placed above those of communities. Clough Williams Ellis, the creator of Portmeirion, whose wife was a member of the Communist Party and who own sympathies lay in that direction, called the Act 'an encouraging sign of returning sanity' after the horrors of the Second World War.

But that was then, and this is now. And in modern Britain, where political polarities so often seem to be reversed, we find the right-wing Daily Telegraph campaigning against the coalition's plans to relax planning laws, and the left, most notably Vanessa Redgrave, fighting for the right of travellers to remain at Dale Farm in Essex, in the face of decisions made by the local planning authorities.

Even more confusingly, the local authority concerned is Basildon - one of the towns established in the late-1940s under Silkin's New Towns Act.

As ever when political morality becomes confused, one should look back at that great post-War government and ask: What would Lewis Silkin do?

1 comment:

John Levy said...

I was interviewed by Lewis Silkin (then Lord Silkin) for a position as an articled clerk in his firm, then called Lewis Silkin & Partners. This was in 1968, and it was an intimidating experience for a 22 year old!

I passed the interview (although felt that he had torn me to shreds) and knew Lewis Silkin, mainly at a distance, for the next three years. However, I was lucky enough to work with him on some planning appeals and realised what an incredible knack he had for going to the heart of a problem and seeing everything clearly almost as soon as I opened my mouth to ask him something. I learned then how important it was to treat every issue by starting from the basics and working up, and also how important it was to try and forget my own prejudices in looking at a problem, as he did (an old-fshioned Socialist working, in those years, mainly for capitalist developers).

John Levy