A city stretched to its limits: David Nicholson-Lord looks at the reality behind John Gummer's glossy vision of London

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a scene tailor-made for satire. There, puffing and gurgling, were the Lancashire steam engines of Tower Bridge, resplendent in their polished green livery, generating up to 750lb of pressure per square inch. And in front of them, less polished perhaps but generating a rather more impressive head of steam, was John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, posing indefatigably for the cameras and talking to anybody with a microphone prepared to listen.

For the next few weeks Londoners will be able to tell Mr Gummer what they think of their city. On their news-stands they will find a glossy 44-page brochure, London - Making the Best Better, containing a six-point questionnaire. Mr Gummer, who is also the Minister for London, wants them to fill it in and return it to him. A quarter of a million copies have been printed. It is, he says, the biggest public consultation exercise ever undertaken in the capital.

To most of us who live in London, the minister's eulogy made it unrecognisable. The impression of another place was reinforced by a reading of the brochure, starting with the cover photograph - a golden Big Ben framed by red tulips in a sky of Mediterranean blue.

Here is a city of life and excitement, full of multicultural and multiethnic bustle, a world leader, a great national asset, a 'hub of historic, linguistic, business, communication and cultural networks' with a 'rich heritage of amenities and parks'. Where, one asks, is the litter, the noise, the muggings, the dog-dirt? Where are the collapsing casualty departments, the road congestion and traffic fumes, the bulging commuter trains and Tubes? For heaven's sake, even the M25 is celebrated, and without a hint of irony. If John of Gaunt were writing for the London Tourist Board, he could scarcely do better.

Which, in part at least, is the point. Since the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986, and notwithstanding the efforts of the London Planning Advisory Committee, set up after the GLC's demise to advise boroughs and the Government on planning issues, strategic planning and policy-making for the capital have carried little conviction and less clout. A series of reports has warned that, without it, London's status as a 'world city' - and thus a magnet for international investment - is endangered. Into the vacuum, recently, have stepped a number of private-sector initiatives to ease the worry about the misting up of London's shop window: London Forum, London First. A new inward investment agency, a public sector initiative backed by private finance, is being established. For its part, the Government will next April merge the work of four departments of state into a single regional office for London, supervised by a Cabinet committee and run by a civil servant of deputy secretary rank.

Bizarrely, Mr Gummer describes this as a 'one-stop shop' for London government and believes the mixture of unelected civil servant and private quango will simplify procedures.

The sensible answer, supported now by a broad professional consensus, is a proper strategic authority for London. Four out of five Londoners want an elected authority, according to a recent poll for the Association of London Authorities. The Government, however, has bad memories of snooks being cocked at Westminster from across the Thames at County Hall. The consultation exercise is thus 'totally open' - but don't bother with a write-in vote for the GLC because Mr Gummer won't be listening.

With the privatisation of government has come - inevitably, some would argue - a market-led approach to London's future. The views expressed in the questionnaires will be fed into London Pride, another private-sector initiative conceived as a drum-banging manifesto for the capital. Mr Gummer, meanwhile, talks resoundingly of a Thames Festival and the Millennium Commission. In a manner reminiscent of the Citizen's Charter, planning is thus turned into public relations and local government into marketing. And while London becomes a themed caricature of itself, designed to attract the tourists and the businessmen, the rest of us are left with the dog-dirt.

Is such a characterisation fair? Or is it another example of the British disease of self-denigration? Mr Gummer would clearly like us to join hands with him in a rousing chorus of 'Accentuate the positive', and undoubtedly there are good things about London, even though his own list - shopping, transport, health services - seems unfortunately chosen. Much depends on how you see things.

A Coopers and Lybrand study two years ago, for example, cited evidence that 50 per cent of Londoners had considered moving out of the capital because of a perceived deterioration in the quality of life. Many, of course, have done so: London's population fell by a sixth, about one and a quarter million people, between 1961 and 1981, although in the Eighties, thanks to the development boom and the growth in financial services, the losses levelled out. London routinely comes bottom of quality-of-life surveys measuring incomes against cost of living. More recently, the Labour-controlled ALA quoted surveys showing Londoners were deeply worried about homelessness, the economy, unemployment, crime and transport. And it was only three years ago that Lady Porter, then the leader of Conservative Westminster City Council, published a manifesto that proclaimed: 'Living and working in London is increasingly painful, tending towards the brutish.'

What emerges from such evidence is a growing disenchantment with urban life, a sense that in certain highly visible respects - notably traffic congestion, noise and pollution, begging and homelessness - there has been an objective deterioration, and also an awareness of widening divisions between richer and poorer, between the private and public realms. Parts of London, of course, now have assisted area status and the author of a Government report on urban policy, Professor Brian Robson of Manchester University, was recently warning about social polarisation in the cities and a 'doom scenario' of permanent deprivation engulfing poorer urban populations.

Government economic and employment policies may have helped to create an urban underclass, but what of their impact on the public realm? A city, after all, is not merely a spatial entity: it is, above all, a public place, and a series of public spaces. In such spaces - parks, squares, shopping streets - people meet and interact, and upon the quality of those interactions rests the quality - indeed the possibility - of communal life. The latest report on the quality of London life, compiled for the London Planning Advisory Committee by the consultants Tibbalds Monro, says that the value placed by Londoners on their capital derives mainly from their experience of the public urban environment, which it defines as 'the entire physical make-up of the public realm . . . the functions and activities it sustains and the care and management that sustains it.' A high- quality environment, it concludes, is crucial to London's future.

Does the Government understand this - or does it carry too interventionist and dirigiste message? More specifically, do ministers have much experience of - or political interest in - those urban public spaces? Too often since the modern industrial city arose, it has been planned and run by absentees - people living outside in the suburbs or with bolt-holes in the shires. What do those chauffeur-driven from press launch to photo opportunity, then off to the country for the weekend, know of crowded Tubes and dog-dirt?

Rescuing London from its congestion and squalor will mean, at the very least, curbs on the private car - possibly through road pricing, funding investment in public transport and a bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. A new, bolder - and almost certainly cheaper - approach is needed towards parks and green space. A concerted, self-financing, campaign should be mounted against litter. To redeem the public realm, you must first spend a little; ultimately it pays for itself.

Bryan Appleyard will be writing about the James Bulger case

(Photograph omitted)

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