This is a big book, hugely ambitious and wide-ranging. It has 403 pages, and I confess that I have not read them all yet. The publisher had no more review copies, so I have been reading a PDF, which tests both my patience and my eyesight. But the book is very rewarding and enjoyable. Williams has spent his life in urban planning in Liverpool and elsewhere in economic development and regeneration. His style is animated and engaging, not academic, and the book is very polemical. It is structured on several antitheses: socialism vs capitalism, localism vs big business, town centres vs retail parks, density vs sprawl, and more. He marshals great quantities of facts and statistics, but his passions and prejudices show plainly. I like the book because I share many of them: that’s my prejudice admitted.
Williams’ three guiding principles are density, diversity and democracy. The ten chapters are organised into three groups: Part 1 reviews the history of urban growth; Part 2 describes the decline of local economies, neighbourhoods, transport and diversity; and, Part 3 of course describes how to fix and revive cities: basically it’s Survey, Analysis, Plan. In his introduction, Williams defines his comprehensive aim as ‘a synopsis of all the issues that affect the quality of life in our towns and cities’. A sample subheading from each chapter indicates the range covered: Garden cities; Slum clearance; Urban entropy; Customer or consumer; Wealth generation; Personal mobility - reclaim the streets; Rearing the young; No people, no plans; Good design; Citizen power.
The prescription of how to make cities better in Part 3 is a bit mind-boggling in its wide coverage. Much of it is an analysis of the National Planning Policy Framework (‘woefully inept’). But Williams is not content just to criticise it, he rewrites it. The outcome is very discursive and could have been edited to a more modest length, but it is very entertaining and educational. The NPPF’s claims that it is based upon the principle of sustainable development are ridiculed. Elsewhere, Williams’ prescriptions cover building conservation, tax laws, farming subsidies, the reform of the House of Lords, housing densities and much more. There is even a 14- page afterword on COVID-19. The book is so diverse that the index is much needed, but it is unfortunately not comprehensive enough. It is impossible to summarise it all, but much of it rests on the virtues of grassroots local government. The final words are: Think local. Act local.