New Study Great British Plans: Who Made Them and How They Worked

‘Why does everything take so long and why do we find it so difficult to reach strategic conclusions and carry them out?’ asks Lord Heseltine in his foreword to Ian Wray’s exploration of how the British make and execute their greatest plans.

Great British Plans: Who made them and how they worked is no ordinary study of planning methods and implementation. But it is a study of how plans, which delivered nationally significant infrastructure or profoundly shaped the country’s physical environment, were successfully realized.

Opening with a description of the 1940 exploits of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, his terse signal on their completion: ‘Manoeuvre well executed’, sets the tone for what is to follow.

Nine detailed case studies range from the seventeenth century to the present day, and from landscape architecture and motorways, to building a new city and the ‘knowledge economy’. They reveal extraordinary tales of innovation, improvisation and individualism at the heart of successful plans, all driven by passionate individuals. And here’s the key point: they invariably worked without support (and sometimes with active opposition) from Whitehall.




In just some of his intriguing studies, Ian Wray shows how:

  • Whether in the era of Sir Christopher Wren, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, or the present day, the green spaces and built environment of London have been formed not by government plans, but by individual builders, landowners and objectors.
  • Birkenhead Park, the world’s first public park, and the model for New York’s Central Park, owes its existence to a handful of individuals, not to government action.
  • Thanks to Head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Sir Hugh Sinclair, the code breakers of Bletchley Park, were catered for by a top London chef. Sinclair purchased the buildings for them too, at his own expense, after Whitehall turned down his Bletchley plan. And it seems he was never repaid!
  • The saga of the Channel Tunnel and its rail link is typical of large-scale British infrastructure planning, with high dependency on private initiative and individual political leadership. Victorian railway baron, Sir Alfred Watkin was the first Briton to start building a tunnel under the Channel, but government and civil service were determined to stop him. When it came to the new rail link a century later, backed by Michael Heseltine, another private sector plan (from Arup) won the day.

In the final part of this revelatory and hugely readable book, Wray concludes that the lesson from his case studies is that ‘polycentric governance’ is a staple of the British style; that Britain has some of the densest networks of civic association (or ‘social capital’) in the world; and that working together these can serve the country well in the turbulent and unpredictable future ahead.

Ian Wray is a Visiting Professor in Geography and Planning and Visiting Fellow in the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy and Practice, University of Liverpool. He was Chief Planner, Northwest Development Agency, 2000–2010. He has written for The Architects’ Journal , Management Today and The Guardian and is currently a trustee of the Town and Country Planning Association and of World Heritage UK, and a member of the general assembly of the Royal Town Planning Institute.