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Martin Pawley: declaring war on modern life

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It is extraordinary how quickly politicians can be turned into raving maniacs by a heatwave - the most prominent examples of the current holiday season being the ministers of the Blair government.

Back in the spring, New Labour was all in favour of turning towns and cities into super-high-density ant colonies full of cyclists - a clever remix of Pol Pot's old idea of forcing everybody at gunpoint to live in the country. The ban on beef on the bone helped here, hitting the farmhouse kitchen where it hurt. So far - if you like the smack of firm government - so good. But from then on all balance was lost. There was the threat to criminalise two-car families; there was the appointment of an anti- supermarket Tsar, and then there was a pledge to name and shame all childminders. No one knew which way to turn. It was as though New Labour had declared war on modern life.

That was certainly the message received by construction minister Nick Raynsford. He heard the bugle and marched immediately towards the sound of gunfire, declaring that henceforth there should be no maximum densities for new housing, only minimum densities, below which no housing could be built. In that 'Now, look' tone of voice honed to perfection by the prime minister and adopted by all his cronies, he announced, 'We obviously cannot continue to develop over half the land we use for new housing at densities of less than 20 dwellings per hectare. We need to set minimum density standards.'

Since this was, so to speak, a policy made in mid-air, it took some time for what it meant to sink in. When it did, it made a future of supermarket- shunning, publicly-transported, uniformed childminders on the lookout for illegal two-car families to shop, look like a paradise. From now on, it seemed, we could say goodbye to suburban driveways and garages, and hello to lots more zero lot-line condominiums designed by Leon Krier and Prince Charles.

This is the silly season. Perhaps when parliament reconvenes all this will be forgotten. Certainly, apart from its unerring grip on the intestines of unpopularity, the most remarkable thing about New Labour's war on modern life is its timing. At the height of the Second World War, when even the grass verges alongside our roads were cultivated to increase domestic food production, there might have been a point in enforced high-density housing. Today, when scientific agriculture is so bountifully productive that European farmers have to be paid not to cultivate their land - meaning that there is no shortage of land to build on whatsoever - it makes no sense at all.

Those old enough to remember the energy crisis of the 1970s will recall that other great political insanity of recent times when the government declared a three-day week, ministers advocated cleaning your teeth in the dark, and every media commentator insisted that the age of cheap energy was over. The outcome of that episode should encourage us: no one took to cleaning their teeth in the dark, and as for cheap energy, 20 years on it's cheaper than it ever was.

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