Is the countryside so precious that we can't afford to use it?
Years ago I interviewed Richard Rogers (as he then was), at his suburban riverside headquarters. At one point I suggested that he was a true man of the twentieth century. To my surprise he did not take this as a compliment. 'I don't want to be a man of the twentieth century,' he said. 'I want to be a man of the twenty-first century.' It was then that I realised that Lord Rogers (as he now is), was a man of great ambition.
Years later, with the virtually unopposed landing of his Taskforce on the Cabinet Office table, his ambition is plain for all to see. But so too is the nemesis that follows in the footsteps of power. For Lord Rogers has clearly become, not so much a man of the twenty-first century, as a man at odds with the twenty-first century. His task force report is diametrically wrong about the future of cities. It is wrong because, in the broadest possible sense, every significant development of science, technology and society over the last century has strengthened the centrifugal dispersal of human settlement and weakened its centripetal opposite.
Only governments, forever dedicated to throwing good money after bad by opposing irresistible trends, offer any encouragement to the chimera of an Urban Renaissance. Everything else points the other way. Consider urban infrastructure. The London Underground, for example, carrying 3 million passengers a day, is the key to public transport in the city. Last month it lost the use of 25 per cent of its track mileage because of years of delayed maintenance and lack of investment. So bad is the state of the system now that it would cost £50 billion and involve ten years of disrupted services if it were to be modernised. London is like that. It has roads that are too narrow, buildings that are too old, and a vastly exaggerated idea of the value of it all. This mistaken idea of value underlies the denial with which so many 'men of the twenty-first century' greet the facts of urban decline. If we could have set aside £10 billion for new bus lanes we would have. £10 billion for slum clearance and social housing? Yes, of course. For a mere £70 billion - and years of city-wide disruption - London could be knocked into shape. But we can't afford the money and we can't afford the time. That's why we tinker with vat and set up an Urban Renaissance fund worth little more than the motor- industry advertising budget instead.
Deep down we know that the only kind of infrastrucutre we can afford is light, electronic and informational, the kind that customers gladly pay for. And that kind is not dependent on location at all.
Now, consider the countryside, said to be so precious that it has to be protected at all cost. What is it for if not for beneficial use? Does our 'man of the 21st century' understand the impact scientific agriculture has had upon food production? Up until World War II all farming was organic farming. It did well to produce a tonne of produce for every acre under cultivation. Within 50 years, science quadrupled those yields. In the last 10 years, genetic modification doubled them again. There is plenty of room to build as well as farm in the countryside.
The whole idea of compacting the population into cities while the countryside is set aside for its own protection, is absurd. Urban concentration is not efficient, it is expensive, inflexible, undemocratic and dangerous. Low-density wide-area networks of human habitation are manageable, self maintaining and - most important of all - where people really want to live.