Plan for cities is long on vision but short on specifics

Prescott's strategy
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A master plan to revive Britain's declining towns and cities and end the stampede into the countryside was unveiled by the Government yesterday when it launched its keenly awaited Urban White Paper.

A master plan to revive Britain's declining towns and cities and end the stampede into the countryside was unveiled by the Government yesterday when it launched its keenly awaited Urban White Paper.

It was a long-term strategy to breathe new life into urban areas, said the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

But critics, including the architect Lord Rogers of Riverside, the leading guru of urban renaissance, said it did not go far enough, and other commentators remarked it was a White Paper as notable for what was left out as for what was included, suggesting that the Treasury had severely limited its practical proposals.

The 150-page document, Our towns and cities: the future, is the first White Paper on urban policy for 22 years. It seeks to address the exodus of 1700 people a week leaving cities for the countryside and market towns, and to improve the quality of life for all inner-city dwellers.

It was unveiled with fanfare by Mr Prescott, who said it would provide a new and comprehensive approach to urban regeneration by dealing with the social, economic and environmental problems of the inner cities together, in a "joined-up Government", instead of separately as in the past.

The White Paper promises, among other things, a complete overhaul of basic planning policy with the needs of the inner cities in mind, and provides for a new cross-Government cabinet committee on urban policy, which will be chaired by the Local Government Minister, Hilary Armstrong.

It also sets out for the first time a comprehensive, systematic official vision for delivering urban revival, dealing with everything from business and leisure to education and design. It summarises its aims as "making towns and cities places for people."

But if long on vision, it is short on specifics. No new money was announced yesterday - in spite of the fact that Mr Prescott spent several minutes reading out to MPs a list of previously announced initiatives which totalled many billions - and there were only about a dozen specifically new policies in the document, as Mr Prescott himself admitted.

They included 12 new urban regeneration companies and five more millennium villages based on the Greenwich Millennium Village; and, imaginatively, a national "green flag" scheme to reward well-managed parks and green spaces, based on the successful blue flag scheme for beaches. The future of parks is one issue on which the white paper is substantial.

But Mr Prescott has been unwilling or unable to implement a large number of the recommendations in the report last year of the Urban Task Force, the group of planning experts chaired by Lord Rogers which was set up by Mr Prescott himself to address Britain's town-versus-country problem.

The Rogers report made 105 suggestions for urban renewal and countryside protection, ranging from harmonising VAT on greenfield new housing and inner-city restoration, to specific financial penalties for developers who damaged rural landscapes. Neither of these, for example, are being followed up, and there was dispute last night about how just how many the Government has rejected.

Mr Prescott said it was only six; Archie Norman, the Shadow Environment Secretary, said in the Commons that 34 of the Rogers report's proposals had been either fudged or delayed, and 57 had either not been addressed or rejected outright, with only 14 implemented in full, which he called "a very disappointing tally."

Lord Rogers himself said he could not give a figure until he had analysed the White Paper. But embarrassingly for the Government, he openly expressed deep disappointment with it, saying: "On crucial issues of land assembly, land clean-up, resource allocation and statutory powers, this White Paper falls short of what is going to be required to engender a real urban renaissance. It is a step along the way; it is the end of the beginning."

Missing elements include, he said, the issue of how much greenfield land should be set aside for housing, the ability to target regeneration incentives, a timescale for dealing with contaminated land, and the fact that there was no bill in prospect to bring in the legislation that would be necessary in some areas.

"We need more Government action to turn around 30 years of decline," he said.

Lord Rogers expressed particular disappointment at the failure to equalise VAT on old houses being restored in cities, which pay it, and new homes built in the countryside, which do not. "We must create a level playing field to both promote urban regeneration and protect the countryside," he said.

Environmental pressure groups were divided over the White Paper's merits. Tony Burton, assistant director of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, and a member of the Urban Task Force, stressed that the vision it imparted was the important thing. "The Government is signing up to a vision which will drive the details of policy implementation forward," he said.

But Tony Bosworth of Friends of the Earth said that Government regeneration incentives would only be partially effective without any real sticks. He said: "Mr Prescott's plans will help turn cities a greener shade of grey, and make them better places to live and work.

"But he has stopped short of taking the radical measures we need to promote brownfield housing and to tackle traffic. Without these, our urban areas will still be cities for cars and not cities for people."