Architecture: Urban hymns from politicians are not going to save our cities

The Government has pledged to regenerate our most populated areas, but Nonie Niesewand wonders if it is really prepared to take the necessary tough decisions
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MODERN CITIES are in crisis, yet by next year more than half the world will be living in them. Ninety per cent of Britons live in an urban environment, many of them choked by traffic, without good public transport, ringed by former factories, mills and telephone exchanges.

However, a movement is growing to replace charmless suburban sprawl and dead inner cities with civilised, familiar places. The urbane face of urbanism, Richard Rogers, is heading a taskforce to report on the decline of British cities, the rebuilding of crumbling infrastructure, house prices, crime and congestion. His report advocates higher-density, better- quality housing, mixed-use developments, public and private sector joint initiatives, and improved transport infrastructure. Urban Design Week, staged last week, brought architects, surveyors, civil engineers, planners, landscape architects and politicians together to hear a few home truths about the breakdown of communities. For once, it is not just the architects of the 1960s and 1970s who are being blamed for soulless cities; planners and politicians must take responsibility as well.

Show the Pyramids to Camden's planning department and the response would be: "The facade is rather monotonous and would be better embellished by some doors." Or: "It's overbearing and out of scale." Bath Crescent wouldn't fare any better: "Much better if there was a lower storey." The feisty new president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), Marco Goldschmied, had the town planners and surveyors at the annual Urban Design Alliance conference in stitches with his parody of the kind of planning put-downs architects get. Goldschmied wants to see planning acts overhauled and authorities informed. In particular, he wants to lift the ban on changing building use.

Planning Acts date back to the post-war reconstruction of Britain in the late-1940s. The world was very simple then. The agriculture and manufacturing industries were far more significant than they are today in terms of our GDP. The electronic revolution has brought radical changes to our high streets. The middle men are disappearing. Take banking. "No point in having a high street bank," Goldschmied predicts. "They are disappearing from high streets like autumn leaves. Building societies will follow very quickly. A lot of foodstuffs will disappear from the high street. E-commerce will replace retailing." Farmers will soon be setting out their stalls on the Internet, independent of the big supermarkets. "The change is huge and I don't think we've yet got to grips with that."

The wish list for our cities of Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, set out at the Udal conference, was uncontroversial, just expensive: good-quality, high-density housing; good cultural and leisure facilities; an attractive townscape with green spaces; good public transport; and controls on pollution, noise, crime and violence. Who will take responsibility? Local authorities are key to decision-making and the minister believes Birmingham is a model city, congratulating the city council for linking Victoria Square, Centenary Square and Brindsley Place with pedestrian routes.

The Riba's outgoing president David Rock suggested the appointment of independent "Town Champions" (yet more tsars) to take an overview of planning and urban design. Aspiring planning tsars should possess an entrepreneurial approach, with political and professional understanding and negotiating skills. "It is perhaps what we seek in an elected mayor but he will never have the time for it," he said. Mr Smith admitted that in planning and design, reality tends to intrude on aspirations (the closest anyone in Government has come so far to admitting that Labour's commitment to architecture has not met expectations).

Time is running out for Mr Smith and John Prescott. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown will have to put some money where the soundbites are. Already Mr Prescott has set a 60 per cent target for new homes to be built on previously developed land or converted from existing buildings and pounds 5bn has been committed to social housing and regeneration.

The Urban Task Force aims to breathe life back into inner cities and towns by improving urban design, and gearing integrated transport systems to the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users. They want a national urban design framework, disseminating key principles through land-use planning and public-funding guidance.

Behind these attractive ideas are tough bullets for the Government to bite: to reclaim rundown areas, it will have to serve compulsory purchase orders on bad tenants; to end traffic congestion and pollution it will have to ban cars in certain areas. It will need to offer tax breaks for town dwellers to repopulate run-down areas, raise stamp duty on houses in the country, and lower VAT on development of brownfield sites. Is it tough enough?