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Leading Article: We must start planning for an urban future

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.