Even our poorest areas have sense of civic pride

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SINCE WRITING Cities for a Small Planet Lord Rogers has taken to wearing bicycle clips during lectures. It gets everyone's attention when he points out that when cars overrun the city we will not be able to breathe properly, let alone travel anywhere. His favourite slide at these lectures shows small boys playing football on a grassed-over street between rows of terraced houses.

So Lord Rogers comes from a very special position when, as chairman of the Government's Urban Task Force, he claims that "the overall quality of life in English cities has been diminishing for a long time and compares very poorly with other European cities".

John Gummer, former environment secretary, would not agree. "It's a very difficult case to uphold," he says. "First of all English homes have significantly greater space than Continental homes - a third again. The anecdotal evidence is simple. When we went to look at British council- owned property in the last government we assumed one spare bedroom was proper for each household. Not one other country in Europe would accept that. Or as much garden space."

Even poor boroughs have a sense of civic pride. Try telling the residents of Hackney in north-east London, with their contemporary art studios and galleries, that they are living in an ugly, sprawling area. Or the residents of nearby Tower Hamlets that they do not have a neighbourhood.

Newcastle is now so fashionable that advertising agencies try out new products on the locals. Tell the residents that they would be better off living in Lyons. There isn't a Geordie who would swop.

This doomwatch comes at a time when Britain is seen as the hottest - or coolest, depending on your terminology - country in Europe.

The Netherlands shaped up much better than Britain when Lord Rogers took a fact-finding tour there. What impressed him was a mix of low- income families living in two-storey homes mixed with larger apartment blocks around a square which doubles as school playground. He was also impressed by the "high" level of rehabilitation of older terraced properties, as well as Amsterdam's car-free housing programme. And the key to it all, says Lord Rogers, is quality not quantity, which upholds that old egalitarian modernist maxim "less is more".

Yet the Urban Task Force has to advise the Government which needs more than 4 million new households by 2016. That is about twice the number of dwellings currently in London, or more than 45 times those of Milton Keynes.

"This is urbanism on a mega scale which, if not well planned, could destroy both existing towns and the countryside," the Urban Task Force warns. So they are looking at regenerating city centres which, it is true, are bleaker than their European counterparts.

When technological change emptied textile mills and telephone exchanges, factories and warehouses in our post-industrial cities, we let them rot. In Paris they turned them into chic loft-living with a fashionable address. Entrepreneurial is French for far-sighted.

The new Tate Gallery at Bankside in London will be housed in the old power station 25 years after the French put their Impressionist collection inside an old train shed at the Quai d'Orsay. But then, as John Gummer says: "Success in France is measured by having an address in the best arrondissement in Paris. In Britain it's a vicarage in the country."

Comments