Peter Hall

Peter Hall died a few days ago and I’m trying here to crystallise my experience of him while it’s in my mind, recording fragments and interpretations which could feed in to any discussion of how we evaluate him, or into any biography anyone writes.

I first met Peter Hall when I was a final-year undergraduate in Oxford in autumn 1963. I was reading Politics, Philosophy and Economics with a good deal of discontent and was casting around for what to do next: something applied and without the scholasticism of the economics I was being taught. I’d been active on left student magazines, unlearning the economics taught in class, and needing re-orientation. I’d been interested by the publication of the Buchanan Committee’s Traffic In Towns and had written a review —or maybe just an exposition— of it. Then along I went to a talk given at Nuffield College by a young man, a few years older than me, a geographer from Birkbeck called Peter Hall.

His talk was (or included) an enthusiastic account of Fred Pooley’s proposal for a new town in North Buckinghamshire. It was that scheme which had a town centre astride the main railway, linked with 4 monorail loops, each serving a string of residential clumps and, at the far end of each loop, some sort of employment zone. The logic was very clear – to combine immediate access to green space for everyone with rapid transit to centres, jobs and the station. The appeal of the (elevated) monorail was that it caused no severance so that routes for bikes, pedestrians and cars could pass beneath it. It clearly appealed strongly to the speaker and he conveyed his boyish enthusiasm to me too. A technical fix for a new(ish) set of problems. This was a significant moment in my orientation towards planning.

I must have had some chat with Peter after the talk because I recall him asking if I would be interested in a research assistant job with him at Birkbeck. [I didn’t take that up, deciding instead to go to UCL and take a masters degree in planning.]

Many years passed before we met again. In that time I read a lot of Peter’s work, notably London 2000 , The Containment of Urban England and his columns in New Society – one of which I remember being depressed by: he was insisting that every lecturer should write (if I recall) at least one book a year, maybe more. There he always was, writing, advising, editing. He came to some of the early meetings to found the Regional Studies Association, along with David Eversley, Andrew Sharman and my first employer, Nat Lichfield. There was widespread discontent with the British professional institute of planners (RTPI) which had fuelled the Conference of Socialist Planners and Radical Institute Group. But Peter was never in any of these campaigns, tho’ at that time certainly outside the RTPI. He was always a very ‘un-political’ person, willing to work with governments of any complexion if there was a prospect of getting some planning and —above all— some implementation going. The most radical thing I recall was a collection of seminar papers he gathered from various authors on the land question, betterment and so on and published with the Acton Society Trust in 1965 with the rather misleading title Land Values. It got me interested in land and rent a decade before Massey and Catalano appeared.

When Peter arrived at UCL in 1992 he gave the customary ‘inaugural lecture’, two aspects of which are stuck in my mind. Firstly he made it very clear that from childhood he had been a railway buff, always absorbed by anything on rails. We later found that he was always up to date with this week’s Modern Railways and it’s natural that when he died his main research project was on trams and trains. The other memorable feature of his lecture was an absence: he followed the convention of referring in his lecture to all his UCL predecessors, including some very minor chaps, but failed to mention Ruth Glass whose hugely important work in urban sociology had all been done in UCL. I’m not sure that he really registered women much, and certainly he was (in later conversation) disparaging about Ruth Glass.

I had two episodes of working with Peter Hall. He roped me in to a team led by Martin Crookston at Llewelyn Davies which had been commissioned in about 1994 to study London, Paris, New York and Tokyo, then viewed as competitors for global pre-eminence. It was part of the build-up of the hegemonic discourse in which financial and real estate interests colonised the hearts and minds of influential Londoners and national government in the long vacuum between the abolition of the GLC in 1986 and the creation of the GLA in 2000. The study was fascinating in some ways, with Peter injecting some of his typically brilliant expository devices: I remember him explaining the governance and boundary system of New York to a British readership by describing a London on the north bank of the Thames having to try and coordinate with everything south of the Thames being a different state, governed from somewhere like Horsham. However the early discussions in that work team had such a strong momentum in support of the globalisation and competitiveness agenda that I was somehow unable to have any impact or make any effective contribution. I think I must have lacked clarity and confidence. Anyhow, I withdrew and left them to it. Only later, after the report was published, did I formulate some alternative narrative with Les Budd (£) and I don’t think Peter or anyone else in the mainstream paid us any attention.

My second episode of working with Peter went better. He was asked to do some work on the economy of outer London for the RTPI London branch and an interim organisation, the London Development Partnership, set up in the Blair period to prepare the ground for the first Mayor of London. The organisation was led by Eric Sorensen, a friend and ally of Peter’s, another ‘let’s get things done’ kind of person who had most recently been steering the final years of the LDDC. We did the work for Eric as a threesome: Peter, myself and a very experienced London planner Drummond Robson and the main thrust of what we wrote was about the need to make London more poly-centric, to foster suburban employment and above all to improve public transport between suburbs. Into our report we inserted various proposals including the ‘orbirail’ which Peter had (?) worked on with the Rail Development Society and floated a year or so earlier in a lecture. When the GLA started work in 2000 with Ken Livingstone as mayor our report was picked up by Nicky Gavron, deputy mayor for planning, who managed to fast-track the ‘orbirail’ idea into the TfL investment programme. Peter always felt aggrieved not to be more centrally involved in post-2000 London planning, especially when an advisory commission which he was asked to chair simply lapsed when no further meetings were convened. But this circular railway service, the key element in the Overground, has been a huge success, is very heavily used and surely represents Peter Hall’s most tangible London monument. [Beware: Maybe this version of the story is incomplete: Wikipedia has many others involved, and a longer history.]

At some point in the 1990s the Bartlett set up a new masters course in “Urban Regeneration” with Peter in charge and with me among those assigned to help. I did manage to ensure that the basic core module was called Problems and Problematics and was an arena for arguments about what, if anything, “regeneration” could mean. That title survives to this day but critical approaches had a struggle to remain central in the course, with Peter active as a member of John Prescott’s Urban Task Force, chaired by Richard Rogers. Peter resigned from that group in the end but on the grounds that it was too wedded to densification, not because of its top-down blindness to gentrification and displacement.

Peter Hall was good to argue with: he enjoyed argument with colleagues and with students— which is perhaps one of the reasons he was so popular with the thousands he must have taught over the decades. Planning schools around the world are brimming with his ex-students’ admiration and gratitude. [My best argumentative memory is of a public debate he and I had on how the 2007/8 crisis should be interpreted. It was a kind of Schumpeter v Marx conversation and I’m going to look for the audio recording to see if it’s as good as I fondly remember.] His concern with students showed itself in repeated staff meeting interventions where he was pressing for measures to rescue or protect small-group discussion in the face of the relentless pressures imposed on us to accept ever larger numbers of students.

Then there were the rather endearing tantrums. Peter was given to occasional explosions, often against higher university authority, but quite often against machines. He was an avid adopter of new technologies but was often enraged by Windows and also by data projectors (beamers) which would often refuse to connect with his laptop, leading to a summons for a technician. Quite often, though, he hadn’t switched it on or plugged it in and students became adept at sorting him out tactfully. The most comical of the outbursts was in the run-up to an ‘away day’ when someone proposed that we seek a briefing from the head of UCL’s European funding unit. Peter sent a furious reply – effectively saying why should we have to listen to some College bureaucrat on a topic we know so much about? – but made the mistake of doing “reply to all” which sent a copy to the said bureaucrat. She was Dr Ilse Vickers, herself a literature scholar, an experienced former EU official and one of the authors of the Framework Programmes. She was not deterred, came and gave a brilliant talk at our meeting and greeted Peter with charm and good humour.

I shall miss Peter Hall a lot, but mainly I think for his endless enthusiasm and his fluency in synthesising and popularising planning issues. In my view he was often wrong but he was great in so many ways.

added 11 August: blog post by Richard Williams, with emphasis on non-plan and Cities of Tomorrow.


Author: Ed

staff in the Bartlett School of Planning and cooperating with others in UCL and with the Just Space Network to support London citizens' inpu

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