The countryside can be developed, but not at urban density levels
'Imagine more than 30 houses on a football pitch. Then imagine 30 football pitches full of houses side by side. Who wants these houses?'
Who indeed? Certainly not the people who protested against the building of 1100 houses on green belt land outside Banbury. They supported the member of parliament for North Oxfordshire's bald summation of what the development crisis means - not an objection to building in the countryside in principle, but rather to building there at urban densities.
High rural densities are the downside of the 'urban renaissance' celebrated by the Urban Task Force (UTF): an invasion of the countryside driven by the equal and opposite 'town exodus' that had a UTF report Paying for an Urban Renaissance begging last week for up to £500 million more to spend on 'improvement of the street environment and public transport.'
Unfortunately this whopping request coincided with the annual conference of the Police Federation, whose spokesman garnered more headlines by warning that tight police budgets, undermanning and the closure of 90 police stations already meant that many parts of London, Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester 'descend into disorder and anarchy' at night.
Without a fresh look at the basics, the chaotic mix of 'urban flight', 'rape of the countryside', 'improving the street environment' and 'disorder and anarchy at night' is going to remain unproductive. Urban Task Force supporters not only insist that there is no such thing as an 'urban exodus, ' but also demand 'swift action' from the government to halt it - by way of sweeteners for developers prepared to build on brownfield sites. Meanwhile, the connected worlds of planning, transportation, education and law enforcement seem powerless.
At the root of their paralysis is a major misconception: the idea that there is no room to build in the countryside. This notion is generally backed up by the statistic that 11 per cent of the land area of England and Wales already consists of buildings, roads, car parks and shopping centres, and that this figure is too high. In fact by comparison with our nearest European neighbours the percentage of built-up area in England and Wales is low. Belgium rates 22 per cent and the Netherlands 38 per cent.
In any case the development crisis is not about how much development, it is about the density of individual developments, as the Banbury example shows.
Lord Rogers has no anxiety about this. He is in favour of '50 or even 100 per cent increases in density' and makes alarming comparisons between South Eastern England, the Australian outback and the American prairie. What he does not see, perhaps because his vision of the city is essentially a pre-electronic, nineteenth century one, is that there is any positive aspect to the pattern of dispersed, lowdensity development that has grown up since the coming of the motor car. A process which, incidentally, reduced the population of London to its lowest level for two centuries by 1981.
Today, because of motorways, electronic communications, scientific agriculture and the globalisation of the food industry, the old Ebenezer Howard diagram of the relationship of town and country as radial and centralised no longer describes reality. The correct diagram would show a distributed network in which the 11 per cent of land surface that is already urbanised would become progressively less densely developed, while the 89 per cent of non built-up countryside would become more densely developed, so as to reach an arcadian mean in which the arbitrary distinction between agricultural and building land could be removed.