In this article, Duncan Macbeth develops the case against Capitalism in terms of urban planning and reconstruction.
before the war capitalist society exhibited obvious symptoms of disease—the feverish stock exchange boom, the slump, mass unemployment, the derelict areas, poverty in the midst of plenty. Today these symptoms have largely (though perhaps temporarily) disappeared. The stock exchange boom is with us, but not the slump, and the Conservative Party has been swept back to power on the full tide of “prosperity”. It is less obvious, but nevertheless true, that the kind of prosperity we are experiencing can, like poverty, be a disease, and give rise to forms of crisis as difficult to solve as those we experienced before the war.
The unlimited proliferation of cancer cells can destroy the human organism. The unlimited proliferation of private motor cars and speculatively built office blocks can strangle and destroy the city, disrupting its centre and dispersing its inhabitants throughout the countryside. For the city, too, is a living organism requiring certain conditions and a certain discipline for healthy growth and evolution. A building and a stock exchange boom may raise land values in city centres to such dizzy heights that no public authority can afford to create out of the present chaos new, more spacious, beautiful and efficient cities.
The period of post-war reconstruction is nearly over. The problem today is the renewal of undamaged cities containing buildings of every age and condition. Most of the new office blocks and shops are replacing older buildings which have been torn down to make room for them. Sometimes these buildings have been worn out and ripe for replacement. But often they have been sound, if old fashioned; the new Vickers skyscraper in Millbank is going up on the site of Victorian flats that were in good condition; St. James’ Theatre and the Stoll (built only 50 years ago, and one of the most modern theatres in London) have come down to make way for offices. The same process is taking place in all large towns where there is a big demand for office accommodation.
The motive power behind these developments is profit, and the decision whether to redevelop a particular site or not depends, not upon the age or obsolesence of the buildings to be demolished, but upon the difference in value between the old buildings and the new ones. Where the operation of demolition and reconstruction shows a sufficiently large profit, then no matter how good the condition of the building, no matter how socially important its purpose, the developers move in.
The process is succinctly explained in Technical Memorandum No. 9 on Central Areas, circulated to planning authorities by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government last year:
“For the kind of development normally undertaken by private enterprise (though on occasions by public bodies) the developer is normally interested only in the profitability of the project: whether, that is, the money values (benefit) will be sufficiently above the cost of the land and works to make the project worthwhile.”