It is gratifying to see the future taking shape before one's very eyes, and with sublime indifference to the headlines as well. By the future, I do not mean the ever-extending local authority green paint on the roads so much as the irreversible retreat of a practical politician from the fantasy of an urban renaissance, and the inexorable advance of consumer technology, coming to the rescue of the suburbs and the countryside.
The retreat is destined to become a rout, and the advance a tremendous victory, and this is how.
A couple of months ago, when the minister for housing and planning was still denying that a forecast or an estimate had been implied by the deputy prime minister when he said that 3.8 million new homes would be needed in Britain by 2021, he dismissed the statement as no more than 'a careful response to real demographic pressures'. The term was taken from a newspaper but it was apt. It is now freely admitted that as many as two million of these homes may be destined to be built on greenfield sites after all.
Having 'solved' the transport crisis by promising a staggering £180 billion for nineteenth-century rail technology and uneconomic bus services, John Prescott is now intent on achieving a hat-trick by producing two more White Papers, one showering pedestrianisation schemes, sidewalk cafes, tower blocks and art galleries on urban areas; the other subtly advancing plans for serious regional housebuilding, starting with 400,000 units between Wiltshire and Cornwall.
As can be judged from the horrified response of Urban Task Force luminaries and the Council for the Protection of Rural England to this proposal, it must be doing something right. For the UTF, it might be the beginning of the end. It started to lose face when none of the hundred-odd recommendations contained in its report were acted upon by the government; now it seems that its analysis of the urban future, plus the additional billions it will require to make it as rosy as it would have liked to make it seem, is drowning in adverse findings.No wonder it has fallen back on the alarmist 'halt the urban exodus and save the countryside' argument, in favour of its earlier claim that there is no urban exodus, only a vast potential influx of would-be urbanites desperate to try loft living.
The two years since the drafting of the UTF report have been accompanied by a powerful development of contrary trends. The decline of agriculture has continued, with the agglomeration of macro farms proceeding in tandem with agricultural land in beneficial use declining by the month. As a result, more and more farmers and growers are seeking planning permission for houses in place of crops, thereby giving the lie to the sentimental UTF image of a countryside threatened by development.
In fact, unlike that of our overcrowded cities with their crumbling infrastructure and overstretched police forces, the rural economy would benefit from more development, just as it benefited in the past from electrification, the motorway network, automated distribution centres and out of town shopping centres, and will benefit in the future from more home delivery services, cheap new low fuel-consumption cars and information technology.
Perhaps it was the collective wisdom in these matters of his panel of planning inspectors that finally convinced Prescott that the M3/M4 corridor, Devon's South Hams and Avon's Bradley Stoke were a better bet than pumping money into a high- density urban development. Perhaps it was the simple recognition that low-density development in the countryside, carefully planned, designed and economically serviced, could hide half a million new houses with ease - and will do by 2021.