Trying to make sense of a new urban future
Implementing the recommendations of Lord Rogers' Urban Task Force will be difficult. It will require the government to take on board a huge number of recommendations across a variety of fields in the forthcoming Urban White Paper. This would not merely be an example of joined-up thinking, but joined-up thinking on a heroic scale. Moreover, as Martin Pawley points out this week, there are long-term trends militating against the re-emergence of cities as the vital force they once were, not least the slow but steady migration to the South of people from the North, generally seeking suburban or semi-rural housing. Technology has made the dream of country living combined with metropolitan employment a new possibility. Social deprivation is a disincentive for people to move back to the inner city (20 per cent of the nation's unemployed live in London).
But what price will we pay if we deliberately allow our cities either to decline or further decline? Do we want to contemplate the class and ethnic apartheid which exists in too many US cities? Do we want our great urban areas to becoming increasingly dependent on the car? Do we want further swathes of countryside to be eaten up with second-rate housing schemes? Do we want our suburbs to weaken (and come to that do we want the Prime Minister promising Walmart they can build whatever they like, wherever they like)?
The answer must surely be no. The Task Force has shown boldness and imagination in reaching and presenting its conclusions. At a time when the Treasury is privileging process over product, it is both brave and right to state that the future health of our cities depends on policies which are design-led. The thrust of the Urban Renaissance report is towards incentives rather than sticks, carefully avoiding the trap of creating new scarcity in the housing market. It argues for preferable forms of building to be made easier and cheaper, and provides specific policies to help bring all this about. Mr Prescott should now show the same commitment.