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Dispersement and decentralisation could keep the bombers away

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In a country as dedicated to archaeology as ours, it is surprising that only fashion is openly wedded to ceaseless revivals of the recent past. Whenever anything more weighty crops up, such as the periodic release of state papers under the 30-year rule, the media joins in the general amazement that any government decision of importance could possibly have been made in that vast ocean of time known to small children as the gap between dinosaurs and when they stopped chopping off people's heads.

One such surprise occurred last week in connection with the firefighters'strike. It was revealed that, even before agreement with the union had been reached, it was the authorities' intention to sell off many town centre fire stations because they were in the wrong place.

Now fire stations in the wrong place, like the wrong kind of snow, might seem par for the course for 21st-century Britain, but there was more to the story than that. The broadsheets went on to explain why our fire stations are where they are. Apparently, it all goes back more than half a century to the air-raid precautions taken in anticipation of the Second World War, when German bombers were expected to roam over Britain dropping incendiary bombs on our towns and cities.

In the event, pre-war planning and operational research mitigated the severity of these attacks by optimising the location of fire stations according to the demographics of town and country. These guidelines were later codified into law in the 1947 Fire Services Act, which has governed the location of fire stations ever since.

For this reader at least, the existence of this Act had been a closely guarded secret, and the whole idea that the location of fire stations should be based on an analysis of potential bombing targets came as a welcome change from the usual specious euphemisms offered in stories dealing with the impending loss of jobs. Nonetheless, admiration for the cool thinking and determination of our forefathers under grave threat must not be allowed to spill over into fire station sentimentality, with former city centre fire stations populated by helmeted and bemedalled firemen sliding down greasy poles to entertain tourists.

What must be saved is the basic principle of minimising the impact of bombing, whatever demographic changes have taken place since 1947. For, while the term 'bombing'may no longer conjure up the image of a thousand bomber raid, we must not forget that, less than 10 years ago, the capital was under threat from terrorist bombing of a different kind that still threatened to bring the City to a halt.

The wisdom of those precautionary measures of the 1930s and 1940s was not confined to the optimal location of fire stations; hundreds of thousands of domestic air-raid shelters were manufactured and distributed by the first year of the war. And the planned depopulation of London, according to the provisions of the Abercrombie Greater London plan of 1944, and the New Towns Act of 1946, and the proposals of the Modern Architecture Research (MARS) group, opened up the possibility of a dispersed and decentralised pattern of low-density settlements capable of resisting conventional aerial bombardment by localising its effects.

In due course, these prudent measures were overtaken by events with the development of nuclear weapons. Whether this abandonment was entirely wise remains to be seen, but certainly the resurgence of public transport (a favourite target of terrorists) and the current densification of the New Towns - from Harlow to Milton Keynes - is being carried out as though the terrorist threat is as remote as a nuclear war and the word bomb had never been invented.

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