'We've stopped all them malls now outside towns. This is the first year we've done more building inside towns than outside. Even though I get a lot of pressure about it, I think it's right.We want people back in our cities.' So announced deputy prime minister John Prescott to the architecture correspondent of The Times a couple of weeks ago. Read slowly some of his random thoughts sounded almost Churchillian; 'We stopped all them malls now outside towns, ' for example, and 'We want people back in our cities'.
It was almost as though he and the Labour Party had been locked in a life and death struggle with an intractable enemy ever since they seized power in 1997 and that they had only just been relieved after years in the frontline.
But who is this intractable enemy that dares to seize out-of- town sites with the aim of building shopping malls on them?
Why, it is not Al Qaeda at all, but the Morrisons, Sainsburys, Tescos and Waitroses of this world. Illustrious brand names sacrosanct across Middle England where there are no military targets, only all the things that make life tolerable in abundance.
How did these major food retailers come to fall foul of the deputy prime minister in such a comprehensive way? Simply by planning their future expansion in accordance with the 'predict and provide' provisions of the strategic plan for the South East at the end of the 1990s. At that point in time Britain's big supermarket chains were already the best run businesses in Europe, and as for them being 'out of town', that was simply planners' code for sufficient space for parking.
Since all planning revolves around the location of housing, shopping mall plans are closely tied to housebuilding demographics. In this contentious area it is crucial to know the passwords. On the metropolitan side you have to be able to say 'vibrant multicultural city'with a straight face. Outside London, 'destroying our natural environment' goes down better - unless you happen to find yourself in Milton Keynes where the best thing to say is:
'1.1 million of you? No problem! Come on down.'
In this case the key planner was housing expert Stephen Crow.
He treated planned housing development as a straightforward matter. If his committee added up all the new households that on current trends would be formed in the next 15 years, and then added the current rate of migration into the South East from other parts of the country, together with global migration, he would know precisely how many new houses would be needed.
Then he put the finishing touches to his sum by saying that 'only' 550,000 out of his predicted 1.1 million would need to be built on greenfield sites - which was a more palatable way of saying that 'only' the other 550,000 would have to be crammed onto dark satanic brownfield sites in South and East London.
Anyway, good at maths as he was, Crow was a dunce at politics.
He forgot to soften up the metropolitan side with lyrical talk of pavement cafÚs and bus lanes kept clear of traffic by vibrant policemen.
Nor did he properly denounce 'the destruction of our precious rural environment'. Instead he used the politically incorrect term 'housebuilding'. Trusting member of the establishment that he is, he then found himself giving the government all the logical infrastructure it needed to justify the building of 20,000 more houses a year than the local authorities in the South East had said they wanted.
The rest, as they say, is history.The houses didn't get built and nor did the M25 shopping centres.