Milton Keynes multiplied

How can Britain meet the need for another four million homes? Build more new towns, the doyen of planning tells Peter Popham

What with the tree people and the tunnel people, Swampy and Animal and the rest, a hasty scanning of the newspapers may give one the impression that development is something which in this country is no longer possible; that every new road or housing estate, every attempt to nudge history forward as opposed to rolling it back, will be met by the thunderous coalition of young eco-warriors and middle-aged Nimbies.

So to hear someone speak out in favour of full-blooded development policies, in favour of a whole panoply of new towns and villages, served by incredibly fast new rail networks but also, no doubt, by some new roads, is rather shocking: like bumping into an advocate of caning or whaling or paedophilia.

But when the person in question is Professor Peter Hall, doyen of British town planners, former chief planning adviser to Michael Heseltine at the Department of the Environment and now chairman of the Town and Country Planning Association, one sits up and takes notice.

Tomorrow evening at the Royal Institute of British Architecture in London, in a debate entitled City, Suburb or Country - Who Cares?, Professor Hall will explain why he thinks a large number of new communities will not merely be desirable in the next 20 years, but imperative. In his view, sizeable new communities are going to come into existence, willy-nilly, and they will come about in a far more coherent and harmonious manner if they are planned. And he will explain how the arrival of TGV-speed trains in south-east England to serve these new communities will also have a powerful regenerative effect on existing towns and cities that now are deep into their various limbos and twilights.

The trigger for these bold imaginings was the prediction last November by John Gummer, Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment, that by 2020 Britain will be confronted by the need to house 4.4 million new households. The bulk, 80 per cent, the DoE believes, will not be young couples but single-person households: young people of student age, the divorced or separated, and older people who have outlived their spouse or partner. However constituted, it is a formidable number of households to accommodate. It is an irresistible force. But it is headed straight for an immovable object, namely the Nimbyish tendency with which Gummer, who represents a rural constituency and lives in a vicarage in Suffolk, is on terms of intimate familiarity.

Deeply in thrall to the absolutist ruralism of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, Gummer seeks to deflect the irresistible force on to a new (and, praise the mark, fashionable) terrain. Rural England shall remain sacrosanct: if Gummer gets his way, 60 per cent of those 4.4 million households will be decanted into housing in so-called "brown field" sites in the cities - areas of redundant industrial or office buildings, contaminated and derelict land, and so on, which can be converted to residential use.

By suggesting that this is the solution, Gummer has grabbed the coat tails of a real and important trend, namely the revival of the inner city not only as a place to work and play but as a place to live: a historic reversal of the drift to suburban and country living that has been in progress for more than a century. Warehouses and factories, outdated office blocks and ex-seamen's hostels have been imaginatively adapted to residential purposes over the past 10 years, and the trend continues: recently this newspaper's former home north of the City, an unprepossessing Fifties office block, was converted into luxury apartments.

Peter Hall does not decry this tendency; indeed, he seeks to encourage it. But he flatly denies that it can provide the answer to the needs of Gummer's 4.4 million households. "In the South-east, the projections suggest that more than one-third out of the 1.7 million new households should be crammed into London. But the space is simply not there," Hall insists. He estimates that the most promising brown field site in the capital, Thames Gateway (formerly known as the East Thames Corridor), might take 30,000 new homes. "One has to wonder where exactly the remaining 599,400 homes are actually going to be built," he says.

As Professor Hall sees it, there will be no alternative to building new towns in the countryside. This is the nettle that we must grasp. And the good news, in Hall's view, is that certain entirely fortuitous developments in the railway system will make the attainment of what he calls "the sustainable social city" far more capable of realisation than the rest of us in our premillennial gloom are likely to suppose.

Two simultaneous but unrelated rail developments are the key. One is the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) being built by London and Continental Railways, on which Hall has been a consultant since leaving the DoE in 1994, which, if and when sufficient investment is attracted, will now extend to Rugby and Northampton as well as connecting the Kent coast with London.

The other element is called Thameslink 2000, to which Railtrack is committed, which will connect Cambridge and Stevenage to destinations south of London. "It will be a very sophisticated service," says Hall, "with trains which will be coming from as far away as Bedford and Kings Lynn feeding into a new station at St Pancras and feeding out to the south coast. It will be a relatively high speed service, with trains travelling at up to 110mph. What you will see with these two schemes is a high-speed metro service of a kind that has hardly existed in the world up to now."

These two new high-speed rail links will provide the infrastructural spines for the new communities Hall envisages. The model for such a development is even now taking shape along the route of the CTRL between St Pancras and the Kent coast, in the East Thames Corridor. It was Heseltine's (and Hall's) vision of how the arrival of a high-speed rail link from the Continent could be exploited to revive that huge swathe of land, from London's East End to decaying seaside resorts such as Margate and Ramsgate, that has been in the doldrums for the past 30 or 40 years. According to Hall, the realisation of this plan shows that it is a mistake to think new town type developments are a thing of the past.

"If you look at the stuff that's going on in Thameside, Kent its really remarkable. Both the county council and the local Dartford council are very pro- development in that area and they have revived the development plan. They've even taken substantial land out of the green belt, the sacred cow of the British planning system. There will be fights even down there - all the tree people and the tunnel people will come out of the trees and into the tunnels. But in general in Thames Gateway, within the corridor, there isn't that opposition."

The idea that urban planning is no longer possible in Britain, that it is a thing of the past, dates from the mid-Eighties: the fact that Mrs Thatcher wanted to get rid of planning was translated into the public perception that she had in fact done so. This impression has been heightened by the apparent anarchy of developments such as Canary Wharf in London's Docklands, which sprang up on her watch.

But, as Hall tells it, Thatcher's trusty nose for survival caused her to backtrack from her ambition to abolish planning, when she realised that to do so would be electorally risky. "Although Maggie Thatcher would undoubtedly have liked to shut the planning system down, and almost said so, she never succeeded. Planning, as a negative device, which it has always really been in many areas - defending the rural acres - was actually allowed to survive because trying to dismantle that protection would have just had them out of office."

Professor Hall proposes to give us a new map of the south of England, full of new towns and villages. Because he is a notorious optimist (it's a rare and refreshing quality), he half convinces us that it is going to happen; that the social idealism which fuelled the new towns movement after the war can be turned on again like a tap.

What the towns will look like is another matter. In the book he wrote in his youth, London 2000, first published in 1963, Hall envisaged a metropolis of "beautiful expressways", tall buildings clustering around all the major railway stations, vast pedestrian decks separating traffic from people. Today, while insisting his vision was at least half right, he is far more circumspect about describing specific styles or forms for the next 20 years.

Whether the new communities Professor Hall describes will be truly sustainable, is a tough question to answer. Ebenezer Howard's garden city idea, which has inspired Hall throughout his career, was meant to be self-contained and sustainable, but, as Hall admits, all the garden cities and new towns became commuter bases almost as soon as they were built.

True sustainability may as yet be no more than a buzz-word, a pious desideratum, which acquires a nasty tinge of authoritarianism (live here! stay put! don't drive!) when anyone tries to put it into effect. But on one point, Hall is clear: however imperfect a planned solution to the problem of Britain's exploding households may be, it will be far more satisfactory than an unplanned one. "If you don't provide adequately, through a coherent regional plan, I think there are going to be two consequences. You'll get a lot of development anyway, but it will be far far worse than if you'd done it properly. You'll get fights going on everywhere, grudging releases of land, probably in the wrong places, not well related to transport, and it will be far worse for everyone than if you had done it properly.

"The second fact is that if you release the land too slowly, the real victims will be the low-income people, who are dependent on social housing, because the market will always operate to give the people with money what they want. The social housing providers won't be able to get the land they need to build the social housing. Or it will be in the worst possible locations: crammed on to contaminated land, badly located, next to noisy railways or roads."

Utopianism may be beyond us these days, jaded as we are. But we can still recognise dystopias like this when they appear on the horizon. The question is whether government will have the vision and resolution to take steps to avoid them.

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