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Let housing follow jobs - but to brownfield sites for sustainability

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Paul Barker was one of many academics, union leaders, businessmen, politicians and writers who used to 'drop in' to Cedric Price's office for a chat while I worked there, so it was with nostalgic pleasure that I read his recent piece in the Independent, where he argued that 'houses have to follow jobs'. He says that we should simply accept that a million new homes are needed in the South-east and get on with building them.

Furthermore, claims Barker, brownfield sites are all too often in the wrong place: East London is full of disused industrial land but West London is where the jobs are! Likewise County Durham is awash with derelict sites but jobs are few and far between.

But if, as he suggests, it is futile to try to stop people moving to economically strong locations, should government at least encourage business and manufacturing into poorer areas? To that Barker says that the old regional policy panacea that you could somehow force jobs into the places where the houses were has been one of the many body blows to British industry. So, is he right?

Well, as a nation which led the processes of industrialisation, Britain inevitably suffered through the early obsolescence of her industrial infrastructure. Accordingly, the decline of British manufacturing can be traced to a combination of poor organisation, over-manning, fragmented and inappropriate location and poor techniques and research, and development. Result: low productivity, second rate product design, unreliability in manufacture and uncompetitive pricing.

This fundamental weakness was merely disguised by the Second World War as Britain endeavoured to achieve maximum output of combat-effective products rather than cost effective production that could sell on design and price.

Thereafter, as the government provided loans to restructure German and Japanese industry in the post-war era, while largely repaying its own war debts to America, Britain decided to create a welfare state, the cost of which totally consumed the investment and resource that was otherwise needed for restructuring its manufacturing base.

Thus through a combination of the Beveridge Plan which put 'ethics and ideals before resources' and Barlow's work that established the basis of post-war planning legislation, the foundations were laid for the 'redistributional' planning system that had such enormous impact up to the early 70s.

Successive governments sought toinduce industry to locate in so-called 'development areas'. But the truth that supports Barker's argument is that redistributional policies have merely achieved a slowing down of the overall economic decline, not an improvement.

In the post-war period up to 1981 the entire multi-billion pound gamut of incentives created just 450,000 new manufacturing jobs. And many of these included farcical scenarios like the Rootes car company being forced to open a body plant in Scotland because of idc restrictions on the expansion of their main Derby plant where engines were produced.

Likewise, Llanwern and Ravenscraig received, 'improvement' grants, apparently on social reasons alone, in preference to a new and internationally competitive strip mill in the Midlands.

And the point of all this and its relevance to architecture and planning? Well, Barker is surely right: redistributional planning policies haven't, don't and won't work.

That said, new ecological issues of sustainability are becoming crucial in the overall planning equation and for this reason alone we should again look at policies which can lever new residential development into existing city brownfield sites. Only thus can we reduce our reliance on the car and utilise the effectiveness of public transport.

That alone seems to be a good reason why Paul Barker should support Richard Rogers' efforts to ensure government involvement in the nature and location ofthe 1,000,000 new homes that our changing social structures and demographic patterns so urgently demand.

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