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Improving our cities is top priority

A short but useful discussion at riba Council last week suggested that the institute will (as it must) add its voice to the debate over the future of our cities and countryside, with particular reference to housing development. Among the issues raised were the requirement for new housing to be a desirable consumer product; that tax incentives be used for development of brownfield sites; that unused or underused buildings represent as great a resource as vacant sites; that the distinction between greenfield and green belt should be remembered; that higher-density development is equally applicable to rural areas as to cities; and that this policy area is one in which a lead from government is essential.

This latter point was addressed by Richard Rogers on Today, when he said that it was unfair to expect individual professionals to refuse to work on schemes in rural areas. The argument has to be debated at national level; he might have added that it is not an all-or-nothing issue. What was refreshing about his comments was the clear argument put in favour of making our cities better places to live and work, rather than mere objection to policies which eat up countryside. And we know that when good housing becomes available in our city centres it is snapped up. People will vote with their feet - if they are given the chance.

Rod Hackney told council that the government wanted to see a greater proportion of new housing in the country because it would provide a sop to hard-hit farmers. It is doubtful if this were ever true, but in any event Mr Prescott has now scotched the idea, making clear the government's (newly-stated) commitment to urban regeneration. Development in the countryside there will be, but there is an overwhelming case for the bulk of new housing, properly designed and planned, to be located in our fading towns and cities. The institute, and public affairs vice-president Richard Feilden, have an important argument to make which deserves widespread support.

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