The Government has pledged to build three million extra homes by 2020, but how can this be done without concreting over the countryside? This question has been worrying me, as it must worry anyone who likes grass, and thinks some of it should still be visible in the South-east. So I went along to a lecture on this topic at the Royal Geographical Society this week, where the message was sent out loud and clear: Worry not. We can do it.
Both speakers, Sir Peter Hall, president of the Town and Country Planning Association, and Martin Crookston, the urban economist, town planner and former member of Lord Rogers' Urban Task Force, stressed that recent "bold" legislation is being successfully deployed to stop new builds gobbling up the countryside.
The development of brownfield (ie. land which has been built over and now lies vacant, derelict or contaminated) in the South-east has gone up dramatically since 1996, said Sir Peter. Ninety per cent of building in Leeds is on brownfield sites, added Mr Crookston. And empty homes can now be much more efficiently requisitioned for rebuilding, thanks to recent policy changes.
Good news, certainly, but I did not feel totally reassured. Mr Crookston said that small sites all over the country were being reclaimed. "In Swale, they're having a careful look at car parks."
Heartening though this example was, it did not seem to amount to very much. Not when, overall, housing policy has turned its back on high-rise, high-density projects. Both Mr Crookston and Sir Peter had, basically, given up on flats. "What we need is homes on the ground that give people a sense of privacy," said one of them (apologies, but my notes do not record which). We Brits do not, apparently, want to live as they do on the continent, in communal blocks. Our homes are our castles. Both these eminent planners seemed to take this as axiomatic.
But are our attitudes really so hardened? Our experiment with flats only lasted for about half the last century. Much of the building was done in haste, on a post-war budget. Terrible mistakes were made, but they are not endemic to tower blocks.
I spent my teens living happily, almost 30 floors up a Barbican skyscraper – an atypical tall build, because of the heavy investment it received. But in principle, living vertically did not feel so very wrong or un-British. To make urban tower blocks work would take investment and careful planning. Wouldn't this be worthwhile if it would mean we could keep Green Belt land pristine?
For while we can build and re-build on urban centres, endlessly perfecting our designs, the countryside is irreplaceable. Use it and we lose it for good. Under the new bills announced by Gordon Brown this week, it will be easier to list "heritage sites". Perhaps we should start listing rural areas of exceptional beauty, too. These places benefit us all, economically and spiritually.
There shouldn't be a homes or country dialectic. Yet some people still believe this exists. One speaker said reproachfully from the floor: "Do you care more about seeing citizens inadequately housed, or do you care more about the countryside?" He didn't put a silly whiny voice on "countryside", but it was implied. It seemed like a very stale question, with the whiff of communism about the "citizen".
We need to move on from this old antagonism if we are going to make a success of town and country planning, and look with open eyes at the bigger picture.
Perhaps it's time for blue-sky thinking
Synecdoche, New York, the new film from Charlie Kauffman (who wrote Being John Malkovich) stars Emily Watson, Samantha Morton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and would be the talk of the Cannes Film Festival – if anyone could pronounce it, or remember what it means.
As film titles go, this one is wrapped in elitist barbed wire. Hasty cramming reminds us that it is pronounced "Sin-ECK-dock-ee", – and that it is the term which describes a figure of speech when one part stands for the whole, ie "All hands on deck" etc. Sorted? Not quite. It can also describe the reverse.
Ah, rhetoric. Perhaps it will start a trend. Here's hoping for summer blockbusters, Metonymy Strikes Back, and Resident Parapraxis II.
* Forget the soothing chatter of the Today Programme or the madrigals of Radio 3 – Chris Moyles's Radio One breakfast show is the best alarm clock around. Moyles is so offensive that, within minutes of tuning in, I guarantee you will be leaping out of bed in a fury.
Take yesterday morning, for example, when circa 6.35am (I know, get me) he improvised a dainty bit of homophobic patter. Seeking to blacken someone's name, he said: "He's gay! He's on the run from the police!" Peter Tatchell would have choked on his toast.
For a man who has already been in trouble with Ofcom, Moyles is really pushing it. He is a gifted broadcaster and often very funny, but some of his attitudes are prehistoric. He is appallingly sexist too, continually bullying his female studio stooge – and I challenge you to snooze through one of his infuriating impressions of a woman's reedy voice. You wouldn't want to give Moyles's head a shake – all sorts of creepy-crawly prejudices might fall out. Still it would be very satisfying.