Planning and Hayek

In his 1945 essay ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society,’ the prominent philosopher and economist Friedrich Hayek spoke of the problem at the heart of the economic process of ‘planning’, namely the fact that ‘the knowledge of which we must makes use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.’ The dispute, Hayek argued, is not whether or not planning should take place, but rather whether it is to be done centrally, or to be divided among many individuals, by a group of supposed experts on the one hand or by those with the essential knowledge of ‘the particular circumstances of  time and place.’

This opposition can be seen to be at the very core of the undertaking of development and regeneration projects. The central authority, be it a local council or planning officials, are deemed to have a greater degree of expertise in the organisation of private and public spaces than independent, private developers based within the area.

Yet with the apparent greater expertise of the central authorities, there does not exist a greater degree of responsibility. A prime example of this dodging of culpability can be seen in Southwark Council’s development and redevelopment schemes in Elephant and Castle. The regeneration of the Aylesbury Estate, for example, saw the council and Tony Blair’s Labour government launch adopt a campaign that painted the estate that Southwark Council had themselves commissioned in the early 1960s in the light of a ‘sink estate, ’in a  state of severe moral and social decay. The then Prime Minister made a notorious speech in which he described the residents of the estate as Britain’s ‘poorest’, many of whom ‘play no formal role in the economy.’ The disadvantaged families living in these council flats were being demonised by the very body of experts who had housed them thirty years previously. Plans for its demolition and regeneration still rumble on, but many tenants have voiced the opinion that the council has done irredeemable damage to the estate by the smear campaign waged against the estate and those who inhabit it. Thus, the central authorities revealed themselves to be lacking in certain key pieces of knowledge, crucially the opinions of the residents themselves, and thus failed to offer a nuanced, thoughtful plan for the regeneration of the site.

Independent developers, meanwhile, are much better placed to gather the essential ‘dispersed’ pieces of knowledge to which Hayek referred in his essay, be it the opinion of a passerby on the street, or those of neighbouring businesses and fellow developers. Their network of knowledge accumulation is spread much wider than those isolated within a central body of expertise. To take the example of the projected development that would act as an extension to and development of the Menier Chocolate Factory on Southwark Street, the project is primed for success as a result of its ability to draw on a wide range of diverse expertise: the hugely successful Menier Gallery run by Paintings for Hospitals provides a strong link to both charitable and artistic connections; the Broadway and London award-winning Menier Theatre is now an established and eminently respected presence on the international theatre scene; and the acclaimed restaurant at the Menier Café has long-established experience in providing show-stopping menus for the thousands of visitors who flock to the theatre  each week. On top of the expertise of the wide range of authorities within these fields, the developer remains constantly in touch with the views of the local community by inviting them to comment on the projected design for the new development displayed in the neighbouring Art Academy Café. In the hands of private developers and their far-reaching, on-the-ground knowledge banks, the future of Southwark development and regeneration could be one of openness and consideration for the local community, servicing their needs rather than ignoring their pleas.