Leading Article: We must start planning for an urban future

Share
Related Topics
We don't, in Britain, think much about cities. At the international Habitat conference taking place this week in Istanbul, there is by contrast big and exciting talk about the urban future - why such once uncontrollable cities as Calcutta and Sao Paulo have calmed down; what impact wiring and electronic communications will have on the mental life of cities; how cities are to be sustained, and their voracious needs contained.

None the less, there are UK cities that think big. Glasgow, the former European City of Culture, has come to define itself as a mecca for arts tourists. Birmingham and Manchester celebrate their multiple personalities as regional capitals and, increasingly, European metropoles. Birmingham may not quite be a city charmed by music, but what prouder symbol of transformation is there than a world-class orchestra created by Sir Simon Rattle.

Thanks to Symphony Hall, parts of central Birmingham have become newly desirable - for that hard-to-define population of younger people and the pizza-deliverers and club-owners who cater to them. Flats are being bought and rented; housing associations and private developers are sizing up opportunities. The flight from the centre starts to reverse itself. If there is a lesson, it is not about "planning" in the sense of a government man with a map. It is about the creation of opportunities - commercial and cultural, intertwined - that have a prospect of being realised in their natural urban environment.

There is a delightful serendipity in the way that cultural development spins off economic and housing development. That is not at all the same as saying, leave it to the market. Markets don't normally build symphony orchestras. What has been happening in Birmingham owes a lot to the determination and consistency of the city council. Public money matters. The imagination of city leaders (public and private) also matters.

What Birmingham's example says is that we need to revise our conception of planning. What government can do is lay down frameworks within which market-led development can take its own course; private interest can be bent to public purpose. This is the model of planning needed as we follow the Environment Secretary John Gummer's advice of yesterday and start to think about where housing is going to go to contain the huge growth in household numbers projected by his officials. Mr Gummer, too, could benefit from some advice.

He must not blind himself, let alone us, with overly precise figures about the growth of this or that kind of household. We cannot forecast precisely how society will adapt to changed expectations, because households are artificial constructs. There is clearly a dynamic relationship between the availability of homes to live in and people's willingness to leave their parents, get divorced, set up on their own. Fewer houses and flats is likely to mean fewer households. We must not think "concealed" households - lodgers, adult children living at home, latter-day communes - are necessarily bad things.

And some of the projections appear innocent of economics. Unless house prices rise significantly faster, developers simply will not build. The market is going to have to signal a good deal more energetically than it does now that household demand is rising.

That said, space will have to be found for more homes. That does not entail some great renaissance of Planning, with a capital, dirigiste P. In some quarters there is talk of new garden cities and huge infrastructure schemes. But they would require the rebirth of Big Government, and where is the mandate for that? Stevenage and Crawley and most of the other New Towns worked. Government showed itself able to create value by developing empty land and selling it, to householders and industry. But that was then. Government now has to go with the flow of private development.

One government duty is to ensure that the supply of housing affordable by those on lower incomes is kept up. That means making it easier for private landlords to let while subsidising social landlords. Imaginative local authorities have cut deals with developers that reserve land for housing associations. Government financial rules should make these easier not harder.

Planning is essentially a local matter. It is for local authorities to zone and developers and their customers to identify sites for building. Central government is the court of appeal. If planning pressures are going to grow, Mr Gummer and his successor would be well advised to streamline the process of inspection and final judgement.

Also, there is a proper national concern for greenery, in the form of green belts and the like. But beyond this, we can afford a much more relaxed attitude towards housing development elsewhere in the "country" than the Council for the Protection of Rural England would have us believe.

Finally, government must attend to the South-east. This is and will remain the site of greatest tension between demand, supply and the desire of the haves to keep others out. Here is where Mr Gummer has shown himself unfit. The Tories are captive to their past experience with the Greater London Council. They cannot see that there is no solution to planning disputes in the South-east - London's hinterland - without London's interest being given voice and weight. Ministers cannot ventriloquise that voice. Something vital goes missing if London is not involved in the debates about transport, or about infilling "brown" city land. Mr Gummer said yesterday he wants to start a debate about where the housing for the new households is to go. Let him end the Tory obduracy on how the London conurbation is governed. Let him start thinking city.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Supply Teachers Required

£100 - £130 per day + Excellent rates of Pay, Excellent CPD : Randstad Educati...

NQT and Experienced Primary Teachers Urgently required

£90 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: NQT and Experienced Primary Teac...

Year 1 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day + Excellent rates of pay, Free CPD: Randstad Education Sou...

Upper KS2 Primary Teacher in Bradford

£21000 - £30000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Upper KS2 Primary Teacher...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

In Sickness and in Health: It’s been lonely in bed without my sleep soulmate

Rebecca Armstrong
A man shoots at targets depicting a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a shooting range in the center of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv  

Why do we stand by and watch Putin?

Ian Birrell
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor