Richard Rogers: Inner cities that we could love

Last week's Urban White Paper is a welcome step towards vitally needed regeneration. But it has important gaps
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For 30 years we have done little except talk about how to revive our inner cities. We have fallen behind Europe, where cities such as Barcelona and Rotterdam have successfully reinvented themselves. If you visit the Continent, you will see how imaginative, well-designed neighbourhoods make urban life so attractive. Cities such as Rotterdam are places where communities have been built in which people feel they have a stake; they are able to participate in the life of their neighbourhood. Every town in Holland, for example, has a built-environment centre which encourages grass-roots action. The Dutch also have a minister for cities who works across government departments and ensures there is co-ordination of all the initiatives to breathe new life into run-down areas.

For 30 years we have done little except talk about how to revive our inner cities. We have fallen behind Europe, where cities such as Barcelona and Rotterdam have successfully reinvented themselves. If you visit the Continent, you will see how imaginative, well-designed neighbourhoods make urban life so attractive. Cities such as Rotterdam are places where communities have been built in which people feel they have a stake; they are able to participate in the life of their neighbourhood. Every town in Holland, for example, has a built-environment centre which encourages grass-roots action. The Dutch also have a minister for cities who works across government departments and ensures there is co-ordination of all the initiatives to breathe new life into run-down areas.

Yes, we are late off the starting block. But if you are late you can follow examples, and it is possible to catch up. That is why last week's Urban White Paper was so important. We have seen a considerable turnaround in the Government's policy-making. It has placed urban regeneration at the heart of its policy, with recommendations such as the setting up of 12 new urban regeneration companies in cities such as Liverpool, East Manchester and Sheffield and £96m for parks and urban spaces. That is a big step forward - and the Urban White Paper shows there is a significant change in thinking under way.

In recent months we have had the transport Bill, new planning guidance talking about mixed-use development and very good Budget recommendations, such as cuts in stamp duty to persuade people to move into, rather than out of, city centres. What we must do is ensure that the physical regeneration of our cities goes hand in hand with our attention to social issues - the rebuilding of communities, the nurturing of neighbourhoods.

The other priority is to ensure that we consider the future of rural Britain. We cannot divide the inner cities from the countryside. Future policies on inner cities won't work unless we make it more attractive to build there rather than on greenfield sites.

That is why I urged the Government to change VAT on house building. In my Urban Task Force report, Towards an Urban Renaissance, I recommended harmonisation of VAT rates on new homes and refurbishments because I believe that this will aid brownfield development. I am seriously concerned about a system of taxation which means that you pay tax on the conversion of old buildings but not on new buildings. In my opinion that is a mistake, and one that needs to be rectified.

Changing the taxation system seemed the sensible way forward to me, and yet the Government has chosen not to do this. It is baffling that they will not alter their thinking on this, although I believe that a residual concern about the public perceptions of indirect taxation may have something to do with it. Yet the tide is turning. People may well be concerned about taxes, but they are also concerned about the rate of building in the countryside, and they are worried about what is happening to our inner cities. They realise that something must be done.

Living in cities suits the way people live today. A woman who has children in her early thirties and has enjoyed all the benefits of city living is not going to want to live in isolation with just her children and a cat for company. She still wants the opportunity to enjoy the vitality of the town, in accommodation she can afford and in a place where she knows she can raise her family safely, and where there are excellent facilities, including good schools.

There are signs of change. People are moving back into city centres. There are five times as many people living in the centre of Manchester as there were a few years ago. The really tough problems which we still need to crack are how to revive the peripheral urban areas, the places such as East Manchester which are being all but deserted.

That is not to say that we have been defeated. We can turn around places like East Manchester. That neighbourhood, for instance, is having two tram routes installed, while new sports centres will also bring life to the run-down area. Those involved know how important it is to communicate with the people who are left in the area.

I am passionate about the need to repair and restore and rebuild the fabric of our cities. But we need to do much more than that. People don't decide to live in what was once a run-down neighbourhood because it has a built-environment centre, or a tram route, or a sports centre - although these ventures do help. They live somewhere and decide to stay because it is their place, they belong there. They are committed. It is bound up with their sense of identity. Improving a neighbourhood can help, of course. The streets that are well paved, well lit and clean, with facilities within walking distance of your home will tempt you to stay, to linger and talk to people. Providing places where people have the opportunity to encounter others is crucial.

None of these ideas will work if we do not tackle the many problems that beset city-centre life. Take transport. If it is not safe to walk the streets, and the bus services are unreliable, people will continue to take children to school by car. When I was young 95 per cent of children walked to school; today it is less than 10 per cent. The majority of them go by car. If they walk, it will be healthier for them. They and their parents can meet the people who live in their neighbouring streets if they stroll to school or catch a bus. And fewer cars means less pollution as well.

One of the best new proposals we have seen in recent months is the reduction of stamp duty on properties in inner-city areas. The use of capital allowances to convert space above shops to residential accommodation is also an essential reform. Both will encourage people back to the centre of our cities, and are an illustration of how effective government intervention can be.

The difficulty for many of our cities is that they have both neighbourhoods where houses are boarded up and prices have collapsed, and other streets, just around the corner, where properties cost far more than the people we need to keep our cities running - teachers, nurses, transport workers - can ever hope to afford. In East Manchester a house will cost you just £5,000, and all those with an enterprising spirit have left. Those are the sorts of people who would like to live in the revitalised heart of city-centre Manchester but they cannot afford to; instead they move further out to find a home that they can buy but which is also an attractive place to live.

These are the very people we need to encourage to return to our inner cities - and that means we have got to build in higher densities and at lower prices.

That is the reason why I believe so strongly that we have to have incentives for building on brownfield land. And that is why I urge Gordon Brown to think again on VAT.

Lord Rogers of Riverside was chairman of the Urban Task Force. He was talking to Catherine Pepinster.

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