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Martin Pawley: good and bad reports

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Two fascinating reports were published last week. The first, from Lord Rogers' Urban Task Force, promised to 'identify causes of urban decline and recommend practical solutions to bring people back in to our cities, towns and urban neighbourhoods by means of urban regeneration, design excellence, social well-being and environmental responsibility'. The second, from the Home Office and entitled 'Reducing Offending', confessed that fashionable measures like random patrolling, higher arrest rates, neighbourhood watch schemes, community policing, restorative justice, zero tolerance and custodial sentences, had proved 'ineffective as tactics for reversing the long-term rise in crime'.

Far be it from me to jump the gun and predict that 'design excellence, social well-being and environmental responsibility within a viable economic and legislative framework' will turn out to be just as ineffective, but at this stage it doesn't look promising. The force's very first objective is to 'identify causes of urban decline in England'. Yet what it describes as 'urban decline' does not seem very different to what used to be called 'living in London', before such semantic innovations as 'environmental degradation, gridlock, privatisation of public open space, social segregation, low standards of urban design and poor quality of life' had been invented.

Defined by the task force, urban decline is the same as urban expansion. The transport and communications revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, along with national energy and information distribution networks, made modern commuting and the decentralisation of employment possible. Aerial bombardment also played a part, as did the revolution in food production and distribution that freed massive amounts of land for building and allowed industry, commerce and the distributive trades to be run out-of-town.

The result has been the regionalised and globalised distribution of industry, commerce and finance that has made the kind of urban/rural boundary the task force is worried about all but meaningless. What it calls gridlock is, in fact, the outcome of a wondrous consumer technology that has made community interdependence redundant and smaller and more dispersed settlements perfectly sustainable. Trying to hold the line against this natural development means factoring in the crippling cost of urban infrastructure, and the money and time wasted tinkering with 'new' ideas like cycling, pedestrianisation, bus lanes, solar energy and natural ventilation. No wonder every section of the report is prefaced by an appeal for examples of successful attempts to turn back the tide. Clearly it knows of none itself.

Real urban decline is to do with tourist versus resident populations; with phobias, alienation, poverty, insecurity, antisocial behaviour; with fears of terrorism, public disorder and unemployment. There may be stalwarts with the nerve to cry: 'Oh those old things! We don't mind about those!' But I wonder if they include people like the head of Frankfurt's bhf-Bank quoted in the Economist as saying: 'Give me four weeks and I can move my entire operation to Ireland.'

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