Blots on the city landscape destroy lives, says Gummer

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The Independent Online
John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, yesterday attacked urban eyesores, which had, he said, ``destroyed the lives of a very large number of people''.

And, in an unusual statement for a Conservative Cabinet minister, he said the bad environment resulting from many post-war developments was to blame for crime and anti-social behaviour. ``It's not surprising that people draw graffiti, drop litter and steal,'' he added.

Mr Gummer was opening an exhibition on good design at the London headquarters of the Royal Institute of British Architects as part of his campaign to clear away eyesores and replace them with ``good mannered'' development which would be respected and admired for decades.

His targets were not just ugly 1960s concrete shopping centres and office blocks. He attacked ``executive-style'' housing for the way it cut itself off from the rest of society. ``The `executive close' is an abomination; it's meant to say we live here but we are not of here,'' he said. Mr Gummer said ordinary villagers rarely came to accept the people who lived in such developments as part of the community.

The planning minister in the Department of the Environment, Robert Jones, will repeat those views in a meeting today with the National Federation of House Builders, which represents big home constructors.

Mr Gummer said Britain had much to learn from the Portuguese. There, when city authorities re-develop urban areas, they sometimes involve a historian and a sociologist in the design of the buildings and streets. The aim is to give a sense of continuity.

The Riba exhibition features 21 case studies where planners, landowners, architects and developers have, after consulting local people, collaborated in drawing up schemes to bring new life to run-down areas.

The case studies are part of a campaign which will lead to Britain's first official, government guidance on what constitutes good urban design - new buildings, roads and open spaces that fit well with their surroundings and that should stand the test of time. Several of the schemes depicted in the exhibition are certain to be built.

One is for the Whitefriars area of Canterbury, where the 1960s shops, multi-story car park and bus station built on a large bomb site within the still-standing city walls have become an embarrassment. The buildings clash with the narrow streets and the old, two- and three-storey houses which still dominate the cathedral city's historic core; in Whitefriars they are much taller, grey and flat-roofed and the streets are much wider.

But while Canterbury City Council and another major landowner are well on the way to agreeing a new development, there are some outstanding issues which show how commercial pressures can stand in the way of what is now regarded as good design.

Today's majority view is that there should be mixed development in city centres instead of the zoning of the past, with homes as well as shops and offices. That cuts the need to travel to work and helps keep the area alive at night. In Canterbury there is a debate on how much housing there will be in Whitefriars - currently there is none.

Another contentious issue concerns parking. The council's policy is to move car parks outside the city walls, making shoppers more reliant on park-and- ride schemes. It wants the number of car parking spaces in Whitefriars to be cut from the current 840 to 500. The chamber of commerce and many shop-owners are strongly opposed.

The exhibition runs at Riba, 66 Portland Place, London W1, until 19 October. Admission is free.