Wednesday Book: Following William Cobbett in a Ford Escort

Rural Drives: a journey through English housing policy by Will Hatchett (York Publishing Services, pounds 9.95)
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The Independent Culture
WHEN WILLIAM Cobbett rode into Brighton from Lewes in 1822, he found the town had spread up the hills with "a heap of low, shabby, nasty houses". When Will Hatchett drove the same route in his sweetie-wrapper- littered Ford Escort last year, he found that one cheerful scene on those steeply sloping sites was a scattering of self-build housing co-operatives using the brilliantly simple method developed by the architect Walter Segal. "Imagine allotments straggling up the side of a hill, a sloping stand of ancient woodland, cooing woodpigeons and a village of grass-roofed cuckoo clocks. It was strange but nice."

It may seem strange but nice that this jolly, jokey travelogue is part of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's efforts to publicise its research. Rowntree funds an endless stream of investigation into planning, housing and homelessness, regional policy, employment, poverty and family life. But it often finds that the people who ought to know where the system fails just haven't heard the bad news.

So they sent Will Hatchett, then editor of Housing, "to be a William Cobbett on wheels, to go up to Newcastle by the back routes, nailing down a bit of Zeitgeist on the way". He does it well, starting in Brighton to reveal the absurdities of the poverty trap and the crazy economics of the interaction between a high-rent and a low-wage economy. As to housing benefit, which enriches landlords and discourages honesty, "We pay a vast army of professionals to interpret it, to administer it and to advocate on behalf of its disgruntled recipients." As one of his official informants said, "The system we deal with daily is absolute madness".

Hatchett avoided London, failed to make contact with Milton Keynes and wandered up through the West Midlands, Walsall and Stoke-on-Trent to Manchester, crossing over to Barnsley and ending in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The further north he drove, the more obvious was the social devastation that followed the collapse of traditional industries. Grimethorpe, which has endured years of task forces and action plans, he felt was suffering from "initiative fatigue".

And on Tyneside, a closely packed mass of humanity that had been industrial England at its densest and dirtiest, he found the same malaise on the estates and the same attempts not to live in the culture of drugs and joy-riding. People with the luxury of any kind of mobility just moved out.

As he sped the 278 miles back to London, Hatchett reflected on the extraordinary differences between North and South. "Newcastle had been knocking out council houses like a Soviet left-boot factory and did not know what to do with them; while people in the South were crying out for affordable homes and were being fleeced for over-priced shoe-boxes, in a market in which rampant inflation was viewed as a social good." In retrospect Brighton, with its range of unorthodox and subversive approaches, was the most hopeful destination in his drives. There he met a group called the Anarchist Teapot, as well as the pressure group Justice?, who had set up a squatters' estate agency in 1996 and were now in office space donated by "Brighton's well- known crusty heroes The Levellers".

There, too, he met an activist who spoke of legitimising "low-impact development" in places such as Tinker's Bubble, where bender and teepee communities fight the planning system for the right to remain in their semi-permanent structures. "He suggested that our most fundamental housing problem, as in the 18th century when the poor were evicted by the enclosures, lies around ownership and the right to settle and to develop land." Surfing the range of alternative approaches in Brighton, he had this impression: "Suddenly I realised that this was a real community, like Boswell's London of Fleet Street coffee houses."

An appendix draws attention to the advocacy of local control, democracy and freedom of choice which recurs in Rowntree-funded research. Perhaps the most important comment was made to him by Tony Reeves, Barnsley's housing director. "The last thing we need is a national housing policy being developed, because it will be all about London." How right he is.

The reviewer's books include `Tenants Take Over' and `Talking to Architects': York Publishing Services is on 0171-924 5615