Local Transport Today is the authoritative, independent journal for transport decision makers. Analysis, Comment & News on Transport Policy, Planning, Finance and Delivery since 1989.

Look back for lessons in managing uncertainties today

Alan Wenban-Smith, Birmingham, B13
13 July 2020

Your review of events since the launch of LTT (12 Jun) powerfully makes the point that much of what has happened in those 30 years was unforeseen at the time. In retrospect, and in spite of that, those years seem almost a period of calm continuity compared with what is now upon us, and coming over the horizon. It is paradoxical then that authors of much of the current content (news, comment and correspondence) seem to assume (or hope) that the future of transport should be as much like the past as possible.

In response to climate change, some (both official and unofficial) want a return to conventional predict and provide provision of roads, while others deny it and seek an end of the ‘war on motorists’. 

I know where I stand on that one, but do not wish to pursue it further now. 

For me an uncomfortably parallel challenge arises from Covid-19. I have spent my entire career trying to create ‘compact liveable cities’, supported by good public transport and delivering agglomeration economies, environmental sustainability, quality of life and social cohesion.

There is likely to be a continuing long-term need for infection control if the present pandemic ebbs and flows (and if it becomes endemic, even with an effective vaccine). That would pose huge difficulties for the integrated transport and spatial planning policies that I have long held dear, so how could that be reconciled? (I speak as a former chairman of Birmingham Health Authority, though thankfully no longer responsible for the city’s public health!)

Conventional transport planning approaches, with their narrow focus on travel demands and modes and their dependence on modelling and cost-benefit analysis, do not work well in such an uncertain context. 

A philosophy of ‘planning as management of uncertainty’ (called Strategic Choice) was developed by the Institute for Operational Research in the late-1960s.

This was widely employed until the Thatcher government’s 1980s assault on strategic planning as an ‘outdated concept of the 1960s’.  

Harder-edged, economic and property-based ‘blueprints’ took over, and the job of planning became seen as creating certainty for these sectors (a forlorn hope, which has contributed to its decline).

Strategic Choice briefly re-emerged in the early 2000s as ‘plan, monitor and manage’, the Labour Government’s attempt to deliver a better-managed supply of housing land. But it foundered on the hostility of builders, landowners and conventional economists to local authorities doing the managing.  

However, Covid, Brexit and the fragmentation of the UK mean that we are finding out the importance of local control the hard way, and Strategic Choice might allow us to grapple more effectively with the huge uncertainties we face. 

Strategic Choice identifies three types of uncertainty: about values (UV – our views on long-term social purpose), environment (UE – our knowledge about the physical and economic context) and relationships (UR – our understanding of the roles of the agencies involved).  

These uncertainties can be reduced by public participation, research and consultation respectively. However, uncertainty cannot be eliminated, so continuous monitoring and adjustment are needed. Planning should be instituting a process, rather than specifying an endpoint.

Rather than the ill-tempered polarisation that has come to characterise policy debates in recent times, might this provide a framework for a more collaborative approach?

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