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Some towns leave an impression on you for life – but for all the wrong reasons. It might be the sheer ugliness of the shopping centre, the mind-boggling one-way system or the rows and rows of identikit housing. The one that sticks in my mind had all the soul of Ira Levin’s Stepford and if it hadn’t been for the rather challenging road layout I might have escaped quicker.

It would be unfair to reveal the identity of the place in question. It’s in south-west England and, inexplicably, remains absent from The Idler’s list of crap towns. I can only assume those who’ve passed through forgot it the minute they left while the inhabitants – rather like the wives of Stepford – are trapped and numbed into submission by a secret lodge. If that’s the case, it surely follows that the architects of this conspiracy must also be the architects of the concrete shopping centre, the legoland town hall and the surrounding acres of tarmac.

But a visit to the local museum tells another story. An exhibition reveals the vision architects had for the town before it was built in the early 1960s and the designs that greeted prospective home buyers. The welcoming shopping centre, endless parks, tree-lined boulevards, meeting places and happy-looking families depicted in the drawings would have been hard to resist. It’s hard to imagine it’s the same place… because it isn’t. The shortcomings of developments back then are well documented and we’ve moved a long way over the past 40 years. But there’s still an almighty gap between the vision and what’s actually delivered on the ground.

Talking to practitioners from the private sector over the last week has hammered that message home. One architect described the frustration of creating plans for developments that manage to combine imaginative design with sustainability only for the end result to be watered down beyond recognition by the time it has passed through a tortuously long planning process.

The gap between vision and reality was also a major feature of the public accounts committee’s report on the Thames Gateway programme. Its message couldn’t have been clearer: what hope do we have of turning the vision into reality when the management at the top is so disjointed?

But it’s not just trouble at the top we should worry about. Deviation from the vision happens throughout the process and preventing it from happening is a matter for all involved.

New Start Online magazine

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