Remember: people have to live in these brave new cities

We need to pull down more and stop saving the second-rate
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The Independent Online

Last week the announcement that house prices have fallen should not detract from the stark fact that ordinary workers like secretaries and cleaners will have to travel for at least an hour to get to work. Our inner cities have become too expensive for many people to live in. Urban regeneration means flats and lofts for the middle classes and the wealthy. In central London we are creating ghettos of the very rich and the very poor.

Last week the announcement that house prices have fallen should not detract from the stark fact that ordinary workers like secretaries and cleaners will have to travel for at least an hour to get to work. Our inner cities have become too expensive for many people to live in. Urban regeneration means flats and lofts for the middle classes and the wealthy. In central London we are creating ghettos of the very rich and the very poor.

Reviving Britain's cities is said to be one of the Prime Minister's big ideas for the next election. But miserly Gordon Brown has been unwilling to adopt any of the financial incentives proposed by Lord Rogers's urban task force, such as removing the full rate of VAT from work carried out on conversions and renovating old property. Unless recent reports indicating that the Treasury is rethinking its position on urban regeneration point to a real U-turn. Only time will tell.

For now, Lord Rogers is right to complain that a year after delivering his report containing more than 100 proposals, very little has been done. His desire to create an urban environment where all classes live side by side is admirable. And the Government is right to set as its priority the demolition of sink estates inhabited by the vulnerable and needy. In Britain three million people live in intolerable conditions, while 900,000 houses are boarded up or too ghastly to let. So what went wrong?

The dream of an integrated urban environment is nothing new - look at Welwyn Garden City. Then consider the bleakness of nearby Stevenage. Since the last war architects and planners in this country have behaved with supreme arrogance and indifference to the suffering they have inflicted on some of the poorest people in our society.

In the Sixties architects drew inspiration from Le Corbusier's huge towers built outside Marseilles. By the end of the decade our inner cities had become testing grounds for this theory of living in the sky. As a result ordinary people became victims of crime and vandalism to an unimaginable degree. The decks connecting these blocks were frightening places where muggers lurked. Now, as the worst of them are being demolished and others extensively refurbished, we need to ask, how could architects have got it so wrong?

The conservation industry in Britain is a powerful lobbying group, which has successfully prevented any tall buildings being built in the City of London since the NatWest tower in the Seventies. Now any new proposals have to be submitted to an Environmental Impact Assessment to determine their effect on the skyline. A week ago it was announced that the area around Paddington station is to be redeveloped, and tower blocks will be acceptable on that side of Hyde Park for the first time.

We are far too precious about our inner cities. They are robust places and easily accommodate innovation and change. To reinvent them as dynamic environments to live and work in, we need to pull down more and stop saving the second-rate. At last exciting new offices, like Norman Foster's "gherkin", and public buildings such as Tate Modern are transforming London and our other major cities. But when it comes to housing, I submit that architects have an abysmal track record. Let's revive our cities, but don't allow architects to decide how the working class should live.

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