Max Lock’s Middlesbrough Survey and Plan by Richard Pink

Maxlock_04When the Middlesbrough survey and plan, directed by Max Lock, was published in 1946, it was hailed as a great achievement and a major innovation in town planning. Many Middlesbrough residents had been involved its production, along with a large team of experts and researchers from various academic disciplines. 22,000 people saw the accompanying exhibition and it received coverage in the national press. The plan was accepted by the local council as a model for future development and it is still referred to in many books on urban planning and regeneration. According to his obituary in the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, this work became “a model for future development plans.” However the plan was never implemented. Some of its ideas (clearance of the worst housing and the development of civic, retail and cultural centres) have gradually appeared in the subsequent 60 years, but large scale development and the overall vision of the plan have largely been ignored.

Max Lock was born in 1909. He attended the Architectural Association school in London, graduating in 1931. He was elected to Watford Council in 1935 and fought for better housing design and subsidised rents for pensioners, those with large families and those on low wages. He served on the executive committee of the Housing Centre Trust and was also a member of the Modern Architecture Research group. In 1939 Lock worked on a slum clearance project in London, before moving to Hull to develop his ideas on Civic Diagnosis, which were heavily influenced by the social evolutionist and town planner, Patrick Geddes. Social and physical surveys were the basis of the Hull Regional Diagnosis. It used maps, photographs and other visual aids, to make the content of the study accessible to the ordinary citizens of Hull. People were the focus of the survey and it illustrated various social issues, such as: housing conditions, shopping locations, leisure facilities, juvenile delinquency, and infant mortality.

In December 1943, Lock was appointed to oversee the production of the survey and plan for the reconstruction of Middlesbrough. The town’s rapid growth between 1840 and 1870 had produced a concentration of poor quality, terrace housing, which was situated amongst heavy industry and railways. Lock believed that it was not bomb damage, but this appalling housing and a lack of supporting infrastructure, that needed to be redeveloped. He believed that the ills of society, the blight and decay he found in the inner cities, could be remedied by urban design, with town planners working in partnership with social and economic experts to achieve clear and practical social objectives. Lock believed there was a need for “fearless diagnosis of the ills of environment” and that planners should “look at what the people who will inhabit the urban environment want, instead of just looking at the buildings”. He called for “an army of civic surgeons who can find out what is wrong and prescribe a cure in terms of the ascertained needs of the inhabitants themselves of a city or region.” His intention, he explained, was to work in a new way, planning with the inhabitants rather than for them, thus transforming what had previously been a largely technical discipline into ‘a democratic process’.

It was the influence of Patrick Geddes which led to Lock focusing on the needs of persons and groups as the basis of any plan: “To this all else is secondary.” In the Middlesbrough plan, Lock acknowledges Geddes as pioneer who “first drew attention to the need for a penetrating analysis of town life before any planning remedies for existing evils could be effected.” Lock claimed Geddes as an ally against superficial methods of urban planning, which simply looked at the architectural appearance of a town. Against this, Geddes promoted an investigation into the human and physical issues which needed to be remedied, treating communities and their dwellings as “things of organic growth, with a past and a future as well as a present, whereas we too often see these wider consideration ignored in favour of some exigency of the moment.”

Geddes’s method followed a scientific observational model of survey, diagnosis and plan. This required a detailed survey of past, present and future uses of buildings and an acknowledgement of their historical significance and cultural meaning. He saw exhibitions of survey work as a means of promoting interest in civic sociology and as a means of informing local people and encouraging their participation in civic action.

Geddes had founded the Sociological Society in 1904. He was interested in town planning as a means of “civic betterment” and was influenced by Le Play and his survey method. Frédéric le Play spent a quarter of a century travelling throughout Europe, collecting data on the social condition of working class people and basing his work on the key themes of place, work and family, or folk. This work was published in 1855 as Les Ouvriers européens and the following year he founded the Société internationale des etudes pratiques d’économie sociale to promote his studies and survey method. Le Play’s work influenced the way subsequent social surveys were carried out, as will be shown, but it must be noted that he also had a political influence. Le Play thought that the task of social science was to maintain a social order and resolve the conflicts inherent in capitalist society. His political ideas resembled feudalism, in that they involved people accepting their place in society. It is for this that he became popular with fascist leaders such as Salazar and Mussolini.

Le Play inspired other people to produce similar studies. For example, Henry Mayhew produced his London Labour and the London Poor in 1861. Mayhew and his researchers spent two years interviewing “the humbler classes of society”, providing detailed descriptions of their work and living conditions. Although in his preface, Mayhew talks of the curiosity and novelty value of his work, he does state that his aim is to “cause those who are in ‘high places’ to bestir themselves to improve the condition of a class of people whose misery, ignorance, and vice, amidst all the immense wealth and great knowledge of ‘the first city in the world’, is, to say the very least, a national disgrace.

 However, the roots of social surveys go back further than Le Play. In the article “The Revolution in Town Planning”, Lock refers to the reform work undertaken by Edwin Chadwick for his 1842 report, “Survey into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Classes in Great Britain”. Chadwick had developed his survey method working on the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. For the sanitary report, Chadwick contacted over two thousand poor law guardians, medical officers, clergymen and local notables from all over Great Britain and asked them detailed questions on the conditions the poor lived in. Chadwick collated this information into a report, which included the comments of those interviewed, as well as tables, graphs, statistics, maps and drawings of sewers and privies.

Chadwick was only one of many people throughout the Victorian period who investigated the work and living conditions of the poor. Charles Booth also investigated the poor of London, carrying out many surveys over a thirty-year period, from 1885 onwards. His most famous achievement was the London poverty map, which showed the social condition of every street in London in 1889. This involved compiling a vast amount of survey data and assigning to each street one of eight categories to signify its social status. The results were plotted on Ordnance Survey maps for public display and publication.

Booth’s research findings had an influence on the political arguments of the day and can be seen as the starting point where methodical surveys began to influence new social policy. Therefore, his work can be seen as a forerunner to the civic diagnosis, the removal of social ills through planning, which Lock advocated. In analysing urban blight, Lock’s use of the American “block data method” – the street by street analysis of various symptoms of decay, plotted on large scale on maps – is very similar to the poverty map of Charles Booth. This forms the basis of Lock’s “scientific method”, that by overlaying maps of plotted social problems, it will show the areas most in need of redevelopment.

Although the Sociological Society was influenced by Le Play and his survey method, there was no strict definition as to what the survey was, how it was to be carried out and what its aims were. Therefore, in the 1920s, the Society set about issuing a series of guidelines in several papers and pamphlets, mainly written by Alexander Farquharson, a prominent member of the movement. These emphasised the Le Play model of concentrating on people and their work and promoted the use of exhibitions to display the findings of surveys. Farquharson also emphasised the importance of involvement of the local community, not only from the point of view of consultation, but also as being active stakeholders in the production and implementation of the plan. He stressed that the outcome of the survey should be practical, that it would be useless “unless it includes some simple, clear and definite suggestions for future action.”

Farquharson’s definition of the Regional Survey aimed to bring scientific rigour to the exercise by stating that it “must be based on factual observations, methodically made; and these must be systematically arranged by the aid of verifiable hypotheses.” He described the process as beginning with a field investigation into the geography of a region and progressing to the sociological perspective, a transition from science to art. Similarly, Lock describes the method of civic diagnosis as the “investigation of those factors which are visible and measurable, in order to understand the less measurable social and economic maladjustments that lie beneath the surface.” The criticism of the survey method was that its accumulation of a mass of information sometimes caused confusion and a lack of direction as to which problems needed addressing.

The Middlesbrough plan was produced towards the end of the Second World War. Virtually since the war had begun, people had looked to its end as an opportunity to rebuild a better Britain and clear away the unplanned slums that were a product of the “jungle-like competition” of the nineteenth century. Lock used recent legislation to justify the need for an investigation into social issues, rather than simply concentrating on the reconstruction of buildings. He claimed that the Town and Country Planning Act was the first planning measure aimed at removing the causes of blight in urban areas, because it gave the Corporation the responsibility to “secure the best use of land in the public interest.” Lock claims that because the plan is based on “a comprehensive survey or diagnosis of the town’s ills”, this will provide the scientific evidence to support the council’s claims for funding to carry out the redevelopment of the town.

In the plan, Lock comments that, “Too long have we treated urban problems as if they were merely skin deep, forgetting that the aesthetic superstructure of fine building can only grow upon sound economic and social foundations” and the regeneration of towns “requires a penetrating diagnosis of all aspects of town life”. He talks about the “formulation of the Masterplan – in fact, a plan or policy for every aspect of town life.” Lock’s starting point was the conviction that planning had to involve extensive dialogue with ordinary people. The citizens of a place, he insisted, were “the planner’s clients” and “must be consulted in the same way as the clients of an architect are consulted”. In order to achieve this, he believed, planners needed to break with the “cosmetic”’ and develop the “diagnostic”.

After moving to Middlesbrough in the spring of 1944, Lock rented a two-storied suburban house, and began recruiting helpers. After a few weeks he had assembled a group which included the geographer A. E. Smailes, the sociologist Ruth Glass, four planners, and 18 assistants (some part-time). Lock then turned to collecting raw material. The team scoured printed sources and also did much fieldwork. Lock himself, together with the other planners, surveyed the town’s housing, open spaces, transport and public utilities; Smailes examined the economy; while Glass completed an ambitious investigation of neighbourhood structure, health and education services, and the retail sector. Much of this work involved recording fairly predictable information. But the team was also able to tap into more subjective dimensions, because, the government’s Wartime Social Survey was persuaded to organise a complementary exercise in opinion research, distributing detailed questionnaires to a randomly selected group, drawn from every twenty-third household, of 1,387 housewives and 1,209 other adults.

The contents of the survey include: geology and geography, which will show what natural resources are available in the region; the economy, trade and industry; the sociological structure; and, finally, the “architectural arrangement of the streets and buildings.” The plan covers all the essential services required by a town: public health, rehousing and neighbourhood development, indoor and outdoor recreation, worship, piped services, disposal of the dead, traffic, retail trade, business and administration, industry and employment. All these areas must be surveyed in order to develop plans that are not “merely superficial suggestions perceived from a physical or aesthetic angle only.” In what seems like an attack on architects and the physical and aesthetic style, Lock writes that, “The ordering of people’s homes and streets can no longer be based purely on geometrical principles of design imposed upon the community from above by the individual genius of architects backed by aristocratic patronage.”

Lock and his team transferred much of the raw data onto transparent maps, and learnt much from overlaying them in combination. By the late summer of 1945, the plan was finished and in the hands of the council. Three months later, it was formally accepted “in principle” and became official policy. The final version, complete with numerous maps and tables, was published in 1947, alongside a book edited by Glass that summarised much of the fieldwork.

The Middlesbrough plan was just one of many plans produced during and shortly after the Second World War as a foundation for reconstruction. Like Max Lock, the writers of many of these plans were influenced by the ideas promoted by the Sociological Society and focus on the human aspects of town planning. For example, A Plan for Plymouth says that “in no direction has planning advanced more rapidly in recent years than in the conception of the City as a human Community.” The plan for Durham, Cathedral City, states: “A city is more important as a place to live in than to look at.”

W.E. Eden, in an article in The Town Planning Review of 1946, is somewhat sceptical of the new, all-encompassing approach to town planning, that the Middlesbrough plan is an example of. Of the new-style town planners he says, “With such all-embracing aims as they say are theirs…one is left with the uncomfortable feeling that they are not quite sure where their job begins and ends.” Eden obviously feels that some of the research and recommendations that come out of a civic survey are outside the usual concerns of the town planner. He says that a good architect would not attempt to produce a town plan “without reference to the uses to which the various plots of land might conceivably be put.” He speaks of the “tyranny of the survey” and how this sociological research takes up too much of the architect’s time. He even says that the survey is “considered by some as a substitute for a plan, but this is no more than a passing phase arising presumably from the indecision of those who are new to the work.”

According to Eden, the architect can study the sociological aspects of a city “to his own satisfaction”. It is then his job to produce a plan and not to spend his time informing the residents of the social composition of their city. This goes against all that the sociologists believed. According to Mumford, “The task of regional survey is to educate citizens: to give them the tools of action, to make ready a background for action, and to suggest socially significant tasks to serve as goals for action.” Eden concludes his attack on social surveys and defence of architecture by saying that, “the architect who thinks of a city as a ‘human community’ may do more for that community by studying to improve his skill as an architect than by dabbling in sociology.”

The Middlesbrough survey and plan shares many of its ideas with the other reconstruction plans – the focus on social issues and the idea of the city as a human community, rather than a collection of buildings. The sociological aspects of Lock’s survey were part of a long tradition: the method of interviewing residents directly and incorporating widespread consultation, the visual presentation of the information and the aim of creating an environment in which individuals can achieve their potential, were all ideas which had been utilised previously in other plans and surveys.

Some of the recommendations Lock’s civic diagnosis produced for Middlesbrough seem like common sense – the regeneration of poor housing and the creation of suburban neighbourhoods, the development of separate residential, business and industrial areas, and the provision of amenities. All this has happened in Middlesbrough since the end of the Second World War. However, the imposition of a large scale plan on an existing town, is too redolent of the worst types of social engineering and scientific experimentation, despite the planners’ aims to remove social problems. Regardless of the financial cost, people have too much emotional investment in the place they live, for such a scheme to ever run smoothly. The places where this type of large scale development have been successful, are where new towns are being developed in open spaces (such as Lock’s subsequent work in Iraq), or the ruling elite can override public opinion and force through their policies (such as Geddes’s work in India).

Lock had always believed that it was part of the planner’s job to cultivate enthusiasm and debate, and as a result, he took a great deal of care in Middlesbrough to ensure that communication with ordinary people remained a priority. His team opened an office in the town centre; addressed many meetings with residents and community groups; gave interviews to the press and radio; produced “penny pamphlets” on their main ideas, together with a popular version of the final plan; built models for display in local venues; and collaborated with the council on a major exhibition. Not all of these initiatives were equally successful. But it appears that Lock did at least partly achieve his goal. Most visitors to Middlesbrough directly before and after this time tended to view it as generally introverted, without a vibrant civic culture. Priestley labelled it a “dismal town”, whose chief passions were beer and football. Others concurred. Yet during 1944 and 1945, there was without doubt a pronounced upsurge in public engagement. Some 22,000 people, perhaps one sixth of the population, visited the exhibition; an array of inhabitants, from industrialists to schoolchildren, took part in discussions about planning issues; and the plan itself was, for some months, a major topic of local conversation. Outsiders registered the change, with one informed observer, for example, reporting that the plan had “aroused a storm of protest and interest”. Given that some other planning schemes of this period provoked only marginal and fleeting comment from the population at large, this, in itself, was certainly a significant achievement.

Lock’s recommendations took into account popular feelings. The Wartime Social Survey had analysed local peoples’ feelings about housing and planning, and discovered a deep yearning for the suburban lifestyle. 90 per cent of “housewives”, 92 per cent of “working men” and 93 per cent of “working women” wanted gardens. When questioned about where they would like to live, “a large section of the [local] population” named Middlesbrough’s existing suburbs, because of “their open development, more modern housing and more healthy surroundings”. Lock balanced this desire for extensive development with the need to preserve both the countryside and what he saw as one of the town’s great assets, the vista of the Cleveland Hills to the south. Six new estates would be built on the fringes of the town, “pointing southward towards the sun and view”, but each would be closely demarcated, separated out by “green wedges” that flowed right into the city centre. As Lock explained, what he sought to create resembled the imprint of a spread out hand, with the estates as the fingers, and the wedges as the spaces in-between.

Lock’s planning in Middlesbrough was innovative and significant, especially his approach to incorporating popular opinion. However, this episode made far less of an impact on developments in Middlesbrough and on planning over the next thirty years than might have been expected. The plan drew together many methods and ideas of sociological and regional survey work, but the mechanism to implement the redevelopment outlined in the plan did not exist then and it does not exist today. In order to implement the plan, Lock calls for “a change of administrative method which can break down the rigid departmentalism where it occurs in local and regional government.” He criticises “the departmentalism of local government administration which hinders the pooling of information, and the failure to make one official or department responsible for collating the vast mass of information relating to public environment in the same way as the medical officer of health collects and publishes statistics relating to public health.” The idea of a local planning agency which will be “a dynamic initiator and reconciler of conflicting interests in all their detail and complexity – financial, legal, and personal” has never been realised. The various departments of local government – housing, social, transport, planning – still operate separately, with separate management structures and budgets and separate aims. This, along with the fact that local residents and interest groups are naturally opposed to being ordered out of their homes by faceless bureaucrats, means that compromise is the only solution.

In the Author’s Note, Lock talks about how survey and diagnosis must be a continuous process and that there is a need for “continuous teamwork between specialists, officials and civic leaders.” The council then, or local strategic partnership as it is now, is meant to be the organisation that brings together “industrial, trade, cultural, and citizen groups” to contribute towards redevelopment and “create the impetus that will translate proper plans to reality.” However, the length of the process, the short lifespan of local governments, constantly changing agendas, national directives and local issues, mean that Lock’s idea of continuous survey and diagnosis becomes fragmented. This is why the overall vision of the survey and plan was never implemented in the way that its architect intended.


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