Run-down, sprawling and decayed. Are our cities the worst in Europe?

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S CITIES are among the worst in Europe and face the threat of falling into runaway decay. That vision was outlined yesterday by Lord Rogers of Riverside, now the nation's most influential architect, in a report to the Government.

The key to preventing such a fate lies in the hands of the middle classes, who are leaving cities to seek a better life. If this continues and owner- occupied suburbs continue to sprawl out into the countryside, there is a danger of entire neighbourhoods becoming deserted. The solution, says Lord Rogers, would be compact, attractive urban quarters where people can walk to the shops, work and play. But this will work only if the middle classes can be persuaded once again to live near the centre instead of in ``soulless, alienated'' suburbs.

Sharing the Vision, produced by the Urban Task Force, which is made up of figures from the development industry, big city councils and academia, says the threat of further decline comes partly from concentrations of poverty in the big cities, bringing crime, disorder and family breakdown.

Lord Rogers, the taskforce chairman, said: ``We have seen a worsening of the quality of life in our cities. They have fallen from near the top of the European league to near the bottom. Bad cities brutalise people and they wish to escape from them.''

Council and housing association homes for low-income tenants must mix with owner-occupied housing. ``We want a situation where you can't see the difference between social and market housing,'' said Lord Rogers, designer of the Millennium Dome.

Britain's planners, architects and developers are also at fault for the dismal state of Britain's cities. ``There is quite clearly a lack of skills,'' he said. ``I'm particularly conscious of this when I go abroad - there has been a general running- down of our skills. We must move away from the idea that building is a matter of making a fast buck.''

Averting the creation of urban ghettos comes at a high price. ``An urban renaissance is not going to come easily or cheaply,'' says the report. Sweeping changes in taxation, legislation and Britain's anti-urban culture will be needed. ``The Government, in partnership with the private sector, is going to have to do much more.''

Part of the answer is ``to drastically limit suburban sprawl and out- of-town development'', says the interim report. It welcomes moves already made in this direction, but says: ``Much more needs to be done to make it harder and more expensive to develop out of town.'' Public transport should be favoured above the car ``to minimise pollution and congestion''.

Lord Rogers and the taskforce's secretary, Jon Rouse, will say little about their final recommendations. There is intense debate within the group about what these should be.

But they will certainly include new ways of raising finance for urban regeneration, such as tax-breaks for developers, and changes in compulsory purchase powers for councils to make it easier for them to buy blighted land for redevelopment. The taskforce is also expected to recommend new incentives for owning and restoring homes in urban areas, although it denied reports that it favoured removing the tax relief on mortgages for homes built on greenfield sites.

The report says the bad reputation of inner-city state schools are identified as one of the key factors driving home owners out of inner cities. But it also concludes there is a deep seated anti-urban culture. ``The English are an urban people who prefer to live in a mock-up of the countryside.'' Up to 5 million extra homes are needed over the next 25 years, mainly because people are living longer and spending more years living alone. The task force believes most, but not all, of these will have to be built within existing towns and cities, in ways that enhance rather than overcrowd them. Lord Rogers said about a third would probably have to be built on greenfield sites. The report warns that a mass of new housing was ``urbanism on a mega-scale which, if not well planned, could destroy both existing towns and the countryside''.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, said the kind of cities the taskforce envisaged would have a much-improved environment and far fewer problems of poverty.

But he was attacked by the Council for the Protection of Rural England(CPRE), represented on the taskforce, for continuing to allow massive new greenfield housing developments. Tony Burton, of the council, said: ``The taskforce is being undermined by continuing allocation of greenfield sites for thousands of new houses, and the Government's failure to support reduced house-building plans in pressured areas of rural England.''

Tonight Lord Rogers flies to the Netherlands with Mr Prescott. He will be showing the Deputy Prime Minister some examples of Dutch urban regeneration, which he believes are far in advance of British practice.

Yesterday Mr Prescott warmly welcomed the report, the final version of which will be produced later this year alongside a long list of recommendations.

What remains to be seen is whether the Treasury and 10 Downing Street will rise to the challenge of making suburban ``Sierra Man'' learn to love European-style urban living.