The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Towns in Britain: Jones the Planner

Adrian Jones and Chris Matthews (Five Leaves Publications, 340pp, £16.99)

Reviewed by John Grindrod

Who is Jones the Planner? It seems, straightforwardly, to be Adrian Jones, Nottingham’s former Director of Planning. But if so, who is local historian Chris Matthews, his co-writer on Towns in Britain, and credited as presenting both the book and the wonderful website from which it hails? Is Jones the Planner a flexible form of identity: not so much a person, more a state of mind? Certainly, after reading this book it is hard to look at anywhere without finding yourself a little bit Jones the Planner too.

In 2013 Five Leaves published Gillian Darley and David McKie’s timely and enjoyable study of Ian Nairn. The publisher has followed up with this even more ambitious project, again inspired by Nairn. The book weighs in at over 300 pages, each of which contains one or two, mainly colour – and always excellent – pictures which accompany a series of equally colourful essays on the results of planning on Britain’s towns and cities. Jones the Planner, our mysterious composite author, takes on a series of Nairnite challenges, sometimes comparing places (Huddersfield versus Rochdale, for example), or sometimes going for the bigger picture in a single locale (Edinburgh, say, or Bristol). What marks this book out as a significant read is that the author(s) manage to say something urgent about the state of these towns and cities today, while providing beautifully researched historical detail to back it up.

Where it differs from, say, Owen Hatherley’s excellent New Ruins is in the tone of the writing, which takes rather more of the informative angle of a Pevsner guide, while still mixing that with plenty of highly charged opinion and observation. Each chapter makes a perfect companion to a city walk, taking you to unexpected corners or illuminating the obscure. Such is the attention to detail that I was constantly embarrassed by fascinating places I had overlooked, and inspired to revisit towns I had only half-grasped.

The delights of the book often hail from Jones’s unexpected opinions and turn of phrase, which are sometimes poppy, occasionally waspish and always energetic and enjoyable. ‘Birmingham’s big city bluster’, he writes, ‘must surely be rooted in an inferiority complex.’ A journey on the train from London Bridge ‘is thrilling for the impressive, varied and well-built council housing that can be seen from the viaduct’. And, turned off by Hertfordshire’s new towns and garden cities, he declares: ‘I like cities – where else can you go for fun?’ This is a confident, warmly-written, vigorous read, unafraid to enjoy the overlooked and the written-off. For the modern architecture fan, there is plenty to like, from an appreciation of post-war housing to a lament for the loss of city planning as a constructive and tempering tool.

The photos are particularly diverting, picking out details from such delights as John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library, William Mitchell’s Three Tuns mural in Coventry and the now lost Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle. And the text layout and production is fine too – great work from Chris Matthews and Five Leaves Publications who have packed so much into this brick of a book, and created something beautiful and rather masculine, without fuss or clutter.

Ultimately it is Jones’s enthusiasm that holds the book together, such as when raving about Coventry Station: ‘A big slab roof projects far forward to welcome arrivals, and under it you find light, spacious calm and an elegant clarity: you can’t say that for many stations.’ His love of towns and cities often ignored in architectural guides – such as Leicester (‘stuffed with interesting buildings’) and Nottingham (where Jones was a planner for thirty years) – is so refreshing, and his judgments are humane and interesting. With a planner’s eye he is able to perfectly articulate and illustrate why Swansea has been so badly served in the last few decades, or how Bristol has become a symbol of deregulated capitalism (‘you can’t blame the Luftwaffe for everything’).

If you’re a Nairn or Hatherley fan, there’s much to charm and fascinate here. But it is a book with a personality all of its own, with an eye for detail that so accurately picks out the compromises that have left our cities, for better or worse, the places they are today. With Jones the Planner – be it Adrian Jones or Chris Matthews – we have the expert opinions of both a practitioner and a historian, and this is a work that should be read by those with influence, and enjoyed by many more.