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Meaningless ideas are still useful in politics

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Several times a year, regular as clockwork, there comes a message of hope. Not only from the Pope or the archbishop of Canterbury, but from Lord Rogers of Riverside, patron saint of city life. The sentiment is always the same, even if there is a contradiction now and then. For instance in The Times in 1997 he announced: 'Nine out of ten Britons now live in cities, most of them communities of more than 100,000 people. This startling statistic reveals us to be predominantly urbanised.' A year later he confessed, in the same newspaper: 'My Urban Task Force has no easy answers on how to solve the urban exodus which is leaving towns and neighbourhoods desolate.'

Never mind. Lord Rogers may not have easy answers, but he does have a 'positive vision' of 'cities, towns and urban areas which will be compact mixed neighbourhoods with a public domain that encourages people to meet'. Lord Rogers has great faith in people meeting people. Perhaps because, as the uk's only full-time architect politician, that is what he does for a living himself. All the same, as Rambouillet showed us, it is not the universal panacea he thinks it is.

The problem with Lord Rogers-style boosterism is that this ragbag of contradictory platitudes has now wormed its way into the heart of government, to such an extent that it has become what intellectual backbone there is to the consultation draft of revised Planning Policy Guidance Note 3. The result is that where Lord Rogers was content to write wistfully: 'We need to persuade many more people to choose to live in cities', New Labour's enforcers have dropped the 'to persuade' and the 'to choose' and cut to the chase. Now they say the density of greenfield housing should be allowed to rise to 50 homes a hectare. They say there is room for a million more homes in London. They say thousands more homes can be crammed into the likes of Manchester, Oldham and Lancaster. And all this will be achieved by cleaning up brownfield sites, cutting out on-street parking and converting redundant buildings into flats.

In practice this will mean that bus companies will determine the pattern of development in the countryside, while the exodus from the cities will be halted by the mass production of carless metropolitan homes, converted office blocks and specious comparisons with The Hague, Barcelona, San Francisco and Rotterdam to silence all objections.

And objections there will be, for this is not only potentially an unpopular policy, it is one so repressive as to amount to a kind of imprisonment. The logic that says that the countryside - which has become an attractive place to live entirely because of the universal availability of private transport - should now be forced back onto the buses, is as demented as the logic that says that houses should not be built at low density in the countryside where there is derelict agricultural land to spare, but should be crammed into the city instead.

The truth is that the city itself is only an attractive place to live because of declining density. Inner London, for example, lost half its population between 1911 and 1981, at the end of which period its infrastructure was at its cheapest and most efficient. Why then should it be 'compacted' all over again, with its population projected to rise a third by 2021? We've been there, done that.

But Lord Rogers will have none of this. He is a good news man. Smart buildings, sidewalk cafes, royal parks, broad boulevards, yes. Crime, epidemics, riots and revolutions, no. As Alastair Sim once wisely observed: 'We are all ruled by dead ideas, but it is only when an idea has become utterly meaningless that it can be used in politics.'

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