Magazine article The Spectator

Tear Up the Old Rule Books

Magazine article The Spectator

Tear Up the Old Rule Books

Article excerpt

Whenever an estate of newly built detached houses appears over a cornfield in the course of a country drive, it produces a pain in the pit of the stomach.

The report of the government's Urban Task Force, entitled Towards an Urban Renaissance (E&FN Spon, 19.95), is a painkiller for such moments which has received wide publicity since its launch in June. The report is worth the hype, in that it represents a lot of thinking and information processing by a well chosen group of professionals. It is not designed to be read as literature, but it would reward reading and provide the basis for informed conversation, in the pub or at the dinner table.

Why, ask those people who do not live in these pain-provoking houses, should such evidently ugly and apparently uneconomical settlements be the main pathway for social aspiration? Are there not other ways of living? Setting aside, momentarily, the report's answers to these questions, the driving force behind it includes an equal and opposite condition, the vacuum of waste land or derelict buildings in industrial districts, which, it is hoped, will relieve the pressure on those precious, overfarmed acres and their waving corn and suck into `brownfield sites' some at least of the demand for 4.1 million new dwellings by the year 2020. This is rather like upturning an egg timer, because the passageway between the full and empty glass bulbs is so narrow that any movement through it (represented by 'loft' conversions in Clerkenwell or central Manchester) so far only accounts for a small fraction of the sand grains looking for a home.

Towards an Urban Renaissance is mostly about the means of opening that bottleneck, which has been created over a long period by statistical methods which have lost sight of the larger picture and failed to look at things from the viewpoint of people on the ground. It has been reinforced by legislation, planning practice, insurance policies and the provision of services such as schools and hospitals. The sections of the report dealing with economic incentives to increase living densities in cities are among the most interesting reading. If taken up by government, they would constitute a considerable interference in a market for housing and lifestyles which is only notionally 'free' since it is constructed on fiscal and legislative assumptions that have become counter-productive.

It needs planners to tear up their outdated rule books on densities and road engineering safety factors, it needs insurance companies to level their rates on car insurance so that `discrimination by postcode' ceases, and it requires flexible amounts of government funding to set the wheels in motion.

Whether such a freeing of the waters will produce the desired result is another matter, for the report acknowledges that supply and demand are at least geographically distant from each other. While developers are not demons, they have as yet few grounds for believing that imagination and forward thinking are ways of achieving profitability. Hence the other purpose of the report, to suggest how 'city' living can be made more attractive than the great majority of people so far believe it to be. This is a good thing in itself, made more practicable by getting a greater concentration of people together. …

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