Awarding prizes for the urbanisation of the countryside makes no sense while existing cities are given Cinderella status
I still wake at night sweating over the time at school when I came bottom in art. The teacher felt he should embrace town planning and told the class to design a city. We were each given a large sheet of paper with a wavy line across it for a river. We were issued with rulers, compasses and set squares.
I was nonplussed. Others were beavering away with grids and circles while I gazed at the paper in despair. I saw no city. At last I doodled some roads wandering away from the river. I drew bridges and spattered the page with random lanes, streets, squares and factories. The teacher looked over my shoulder and was appalled. “You have simply drawn London,” he said. He tore up my masterpiece and put me bottom of the class. He apparently expected me to design Brasília, or at least Crawley new town. I was mortified.
The British hate blood-and-guts cities. Germans, Italians, French, even Americans, cherish theirs. They boast of them, beautify them and renew them. Since William Cobbett and John Ruskin, the British have treated them as boils on the face of the Earth. Decent people have nothing to do with them, except perhaps London.
There is no clearer sign of this than today’s Wolfson prize of £250,000 for “a new garden city”. It echoes the nation’s century-old love affair with socialist utopias, where humans are born again in the planners’ image on virgin soil and cleansed of urban sin. I assume candidates for the prize should wear plus-fours, ride penny-farthings and read Proust.
Ebenezer Howard‘s garden cities seemed ideal at a time when real ones were overcrowded and polluted. The first, Letchworth, had the aura of rustic commune, of cottage estates, summer schools, bookbinding and sandal-making. The only pub, the Skittles, served the fizzy apple drink Cydrax and Bovril.
These places gave way to the new towns of the mid-20th century, and to the new-town blues of Crawley, Corby, Skelmersdale and Cumbernauld. Their architect-advocates, most of them with money at stake, were unmoved by evidence that such artificial “communities” lacked the vitality and social support of settled cities. They drove on to the apotheosis of rural colonisation, Milton Keynes. If low-density, car-borne living suited LA, it would surely suit Buckinghamshire.
We seem stuck in this mode. Lord Wolfson’s prize rightly honours the principle that good design is better than bad. But the Tory peer is only trying to help his developer friends push through volume housebuilding where it would otherwise not be allowed. It is like pleading for high-rise flats everywhere “provided they are good ones”. The intention is to sanitise as “prizewinning” the urbanisation being sought round Micheldever and Winchester in Hampshire, across north Kent and along the Vale of Severn, and green belt intrusion around northern cities.
There is no argument over whether Britain needs more houses, only where they should be. The answer cannot lie in the coalition’s war on rural communities. It is a war so counterproductive that it has delivered fewer houses than Labour’s former policy of “brownfield first”. Seeking a fight over every field has brought development almost to a halt as farmers bid for permissions and courts are jammed with litigants.
Volume housing first and foremost means city housing. Nothing else comes near the problem. It means bringing serviced but underused land and buildings back into occupation. It means more flexible planning to increase densities. It uses taxes and subsidies to use space more efficiently. Britain cannot want its “rust-belt” cities to end up like Detroit, when the rest of Europe has learned how to renew them productively and profitably.
Any visitor to the West Midlands and the urban north is familiar with the sight of acres of dead land. Walk through the Black Country or to the north of Manchester. Walk through Rotherham or Hull. These places cannot be abandoned to depopulation and crime in the hope that they will somehow vanish. To imagine they can be replaced by building in the countryside is the ethos of Blade Runner. It is stupid.
Labour’s planning policy did not get much right, but it did aim development at existing areas of settlement, at re-using existing infrastructure. Projects such as Liverpool One next to the Mersey docks, Manchester’s Northern Quarter, Sheffield’s Don Valley and Leeds’ Kirkstall Forge have proved exciting in rescuing their environs from half a century of neglect. They are essential, imitable and efficient. Liverpool One, spread over 42 acres of inner city, is the largest open street renewal project in Britain in a once derelict area, a refreshing alternative to that urban neutron bomb, the giant mall. It works. Lifeless city centres are the enemies of economic growth.
There is no shortage of urban land in Britain awaiting development. There is just a huge distortion of fiscal and planning incentives. The government, under pressure from commercial lobbyists, foolishly abandoned Labour’s presumption in favour of urban renewal. It continued to exempt new buildings from VAT while keeping it on building conversion and restoration. This is the most anti-green tax imaginable.
Ever since the housing minister, Lewis Silkin, tried to build “Silkingrad” in the fields around Stevenage in Hertfordshire, utopianism has battled with reality. What was a campaign of leftwing politicians for socialism in the countryside (destroying it in the process) is now a campaign by rightwingers for a scatter of 300-unit housing estates.
Capitalist utopias are no more likely to match the rough timber of mankind than socialist ones. Fantasising about new cities while existing ones revert to Cinderella status is environmental, economic and social nonsense. It is today’s cities that need prizes.
Link to article: feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663889/s/33b1629f/sc/38/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Ccommentisfree0C20A130Cnov0C140Cwhy0Ebuild0Enew0Etowns0Ewhen0Ewe0Ehave0Ecities/story01.htm