Oliver Letwin: What drives people from the city to the country is ugliness

From a speech by the shadow Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs to the Environmental Services Association, in London
Click to follow

Every year, 21 square miles of countryside disappears under new development. Soon, southern England will be one large, landscaped housing estate - with the odd car park, posing as a motorway, thrown in.

If we want to do anything constructive about the problem, we have to understand what is causing it. And the cause isn't hard to find: the exodus from the cities. Yet what drives people out from the city to the country isn't death, war, famine or pestilence, but that fifth horseman, ugliness. For many, ugliness is a price not worth paying despite all the other advantages of the city.

Change the equation by making the city more beautiful, and many will make a different decision. Let me provide an example of the way in which the private and the public can work together to achieve the common good of urban regeneration.

Sadly, it is not a British example. It concerns the town of Bar-le-Duc in north-eastern France. The town and its buildings are old. Thirty years ago they looked just about dead. The stonework was filthy with years of grime. The masonry was crumbling. Paint flaked from window sills and shutters hung off their hinges. But the town council decided to make a difference.

Public buildings were cleaned up and people saw just how beautiful their own houses might look, so there was no real opposition when the council required all property owners to clean the frontages of their homes and offices within five years.

As an added touch, there was a further requirement to repaint shutters and window sills within a given palette of colours based on the town's coat of arms. That might seem just a little bossy to us. But the result was stunning. Beauty had returned to Bar-le-Duc - as did much of its former population. Abandoned buildings were restored. And so was a medieval market, which now does a thriving trade after centuries of disuse. Restaurants have opened and local shops are there to stay.

The process of beautification goes on.By creating the right conditions, authority as an expression of community has allowed individual interests to work for the public interest.