Time for city villages?

This is a slightly longer version of my column in June’s Countryman magazine.

The only way to protect the countryside is get our towns right. In particular, the rapid growth of London poses a threat to countryside across a wide area. London’s population fell from the war to the late 1980s, but is now back to its 1939 peak of 8.6 million, and rising.

Where are the extra people going to live? It is easy to say ‘on brownfield sites’, but the challenge is not just to find suitable land and develop it; it is to create places where people want to live. Anything that smacks of town cramming will backfire. We need to make cities good, green places in which to live.

One interesting idea now being touted by Labour peer Andrew Adonis is to rebuild some of London’s 3,500 council estates. In an IPPR pamphlet, City Villages: more homes, better communities he argues that we can replace tower blocks with traditional streets and, at the same time, achieve higher densities, a better social mix, more usable green space, better design and, all in all, better places. The idea is certainly worth exploring.

Although London is growing, the inner London boroughs are still almost two million below their peak population. London has, the pamphlet argues, an inner city built at suburban densities. And I know estates in outer London that could certainly benefit from regeneration and densification.

But any large scale initiatives of the sort proposed will require a much more active role by the state than we have seen in recent decades. When the country consistently built more than 200,000 houses a year, this was the result of substantial building by local authorities, supported by central government. Can councils again take responsibility for getting houses built? And will they build well?

The pamphlet begins with some wisdom from Aneurin Bevan: ‘In the next year or so we will be judged by the number of houses we have put up. But in ten years we will be judged by the quality of those homes.’ It is not clear that local authorities currently have the skills, confidence or powers needed for the large-scale regeneration proposed. Developing city villages will certainly require, as Adonis acknowledges, ‘a new generation of public master planners, radical innovation in design, a wholly new approach to land development, and new forms of partnership between the public, private and voluntary sectors’.

But there is clearly potential. Adonis notes that ‘by far the largest source of publicly owned land suitable for new housing… namely, existing council housing estates’, hardly features in discussions about brownfield development. Southwark Council, for instance, own 43% of land in the borough (does it know which 43%?) including around 10,000 garages, many or most of which are presumably no longer used as garages. Across inner London, councils typically own 25-30% of the land.

In addition, as Richard Rogers points out in his essay, London has 600 high streets and town centres, few of which are entirely publicly owned. If each took an additional 500 homes, ‘this would deliver more than seven years’ supply, as well as shoring up and protecting the prosperity of existing places through enhancements to public spaces and streets’.

The big challenge, however, as with development generally, is to carry people with you. Talk of ‘urban renaissance’ and ‘land optimisation’ obscures the fact that people live on the land being ‘optimised’. Most of them like their homes and neighbourhoods well enough as they are. Google the examples of estate regeneration highlighted in the pamphlet and you will find plenty of accusations of unfair treatment, forced gentrification, even ‘social cleansing’. Unless people can be persuaded that rebuilding ‘failed estates’ will make their lives better – not just help abstractions like London or the countryside – this idea will not go far. Which would be a pity.

5 Responses to “Time for city villages?”

  1. 1 oldbrock2014 July 2, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Nice to see a comment from someone in N.O. recognising population growth is a problem. Your solution however is a non starter as the government want to sell off all social housing. There are only two ways to reduce house prices.
    1. Reduce the number of people living in the country.
    2. Increase social housing, which no major political party is proposing.
    For years N.O. personnel have been saying ” We can not campaign on the impact of population growth as we would have to put forward ways of reducing the population which is outside its charitable remit” . What I want to know is as CPRE refuses to tackle the biggest threat to the countryside which is population growth how does it propose to solve the impact of population growth? N.O. can not have it both ways it is time CPRE faced up to this issue!
    Every issue the CPRE campaigns on is made harder to solve by a ever increasing population, yet it consistently misses opportunities to highlight this fact. I am proud to give up my free time to help CPRE protect the environment however without either a clear policy of highlighting the impact of population growth or a credible plan for dealing with it I am fighting with one arm behind my back all the time.

    • 2 sspiers July 2, 2015 at 4:08 pm

      Alex, thanks for your comment. Can you suggest what a ‘credible plan for dealing with population growth’ might look like?

      • 3 oldbrock2014 July 2, 2015 at 5:51 pm

        For any plan to be credible it would have to cover all the topics we campaign on otherwise our opponents will say “what about”. This is only a rough shape and the details are open to debate, the key point would be the linking of CPRE policies to form a overall strategy. Some of the points below are already CPRE policy some are more radical thinking. Governments never seem to take a overview which is a major flaw.
        Ban on all building on agricultural land.
        Increase in research.
        Securing water supply.
        Reduce food miles
        Allotments in all new developments
        Micro nutrients to be included in RDA’s and on ingredients lists
        Increase in housing density.
        Removal of VAT on home extensions.
        Complete revue of rented sector laws and regulation including taxation.
        Developers must be able to prove enough water for development.
        Developers must be able to prove enough health care provision to cope with development.
        Greater investment in non motorised transport net work.
        Greater investment in public transport.
        Reduce HGV miles – link to reducing food miles.
        Greater use of sea and waterways.
        Switch to hydrogen economy
        More investment in power from water
        Solar panels on all commercial buildings
        Councils to have the power to close roads when pollution exceeds safe limits.
        Promotion of video links to reduce commercial traveling miles.
        More measures to reduce usage.
        Greater effaces on protecting biodiversity.
        Increase tree planting as part of flood protection.
        Land reclamation as part of costal defence strategy.
        Reduce light pollution.
        Reduce air travel.
        Greater protection from noise pollution.
        Target of increasing hedgerows.
        Hope this helps
        Alex Hills

  2. 4 sspiers July 3, 2015 at 8:18 am

    Thanks, Alex, most of that is consistent with CPRE’s 2026 vision for the countryside and we already campaign on a lot of the things you mention. I guess the problem for us is whether to spend a lot of time setting a detailed policy prospectus (particularly in the aftermath of a general election which the government has won on its prospectus) rather than campaigning in particular areas where we know we have a chance of making a difference.

    But we do intend to refresh and relaunch the 2026 vision, which go some way to setting out the wider plan you want, and will give a platform to argue for more sustainable policies all round.

    I’m glad you are talking about policies to protect the countryside. I think this is more fruitful than thinking that CPRE can influence population growth simply by highlighting the issue.

    • 5 oldbrock2014 July 4, 2015 at 9:56 am

      As a suggestion I would like to suggest that the relaunch of the 2026 vision is used as a membership recruiting tool by connecting with people in their late teen and early twenties. This is a demographic that the CPRE need to start attracting. One of the reasons it has not been successful in the past is that it does not seem very relevant to them. House and rental prices are the biggest concern for this demographic. If you take the goal of showing what needs to be do to cope with a rising population and the need for more members. Add the fact that government and developers keep say build more houses and the price will come down which we know is not true. If in the vision it was made clear;
      1. There are only two ways to reduce house prices reduce the population or increase social housing.
      2. A call for a commission on the rented housing sector to look at what the regulatory frame work needs to be and what the tax framework needs to be. The current framework is designed for a much smaller % of the housing market and is in need of reform. Buy to let landlords and letting agencies have a lot of questions to answer about how they do business and their roll in forcing prices up. In some case the system unduly favours landlord and in some cases the other way around. Another option would be to call for a rent cap is during the 1st world war but this would not solve all the problems and create others.
      3. The call for a hydrogen based economy is a achievable goal using UK technology. Good first steps would be to require all filling stations to have at least one hydrogen filling point and the conversion of diesel cars to hydrogen to be VAT exempt.
      The above points are radical but if the hard fact is the charity sector is as competitive as any other business sector and to survive and grow it who for 30 years has been a out and out tree hugging environmentalist campaigner, Yet in recent year with experience I have taken on a more strategic planning roll and have worked with a number of other environmental charities which gives me a unusual perspective on things.

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