BRITAIN'S DECLINING cities can be reborn, but a tremendous effort will be needed, the Government's Urban Task Force, a hand-picked group of planning experts, said yesterday.
In its long-awaited report, the 14-strong task force, appointed last year by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, and chaired by the Millennium Dome architect, Lord Rogers of Riverside, offered a detailed blueprint for urban revival and for controlling the remorseless development of what remains of the countryside.
The report runs to 300 pages and contains more than 100 recommendations, many of which will require parliamentary legislation, although the billions of pounds the effort will cost - assuming the Government agrees to it - have not yet been calculated.
That must await publication of the Urban White Paper some time in the next 12 months. Mr Prescott welcomed the report but did not give a formal response.
The task force's suggestions comprise a mixture of "carrots and sticks" and range from tax reliefs for residents of rundown urban areas to tougher powers for local councils to requisition redundant buildings. There is also a radical new form of financial penalties for developers who build houses on greenfield sites.
They include the setting up of home zones, where residents will take priority over traffic, and urban priority areas with their own companies to push redevelopment forward. They also deal with design, finance, transport and infrastructure and the local and national policy frameworks.
They are necessary, the task force says, because under present policies it calculates the Government will not meet its much-trumpeted aim of building 60 per cent of new houses on previously developed (brownfield) land over the next 20 years. The best it can do is 55 per cent, the report says.
But with "different and more imaginative ways of managing land and buildings" the target can be attained and Britain can enjoy an urban renaissance in which cities once again become attractive places to live, work and socialise.
"The quality of life in our cities has been diminishing for a long time, and in many parts of England we compare very poorly with other European towns and cities," Lord Rogers said in launching the report. "But I am optimistic about the future. We have the power to make a real difference." He held up Barcelona as a model of what might be achieved in modern urban living.
The basic problem that led to the setting up of the task force is simple: where are the houses to be built for the 3.8 million extra households that will form in Britain by 2021, if urban areas, especially the older, larger cities of the North, are declining so steeply that fewer and fewer people want to live in them?
In the overcrowded countryside of the South-east, many experts feel, there is simply not enough room.
After much consideration, the task force has rejected the idea of a direct greenfield tax on house building, but has opted to use the planning system to control developers' behaviour. It favours the "deallocation" of some of the countryside that has already been allocated as housing land in county council's structure plans.
But it is also recommending a radical departure that house- builders will see as a greenfield tax in all but name: environmental impact fees.
It proposes that builders in the countryside should be directly charged for the environmental impacts their developments have, such as loss of landscape, harm to wildlife, soil erosion, pressure on waste and water management systems, impacts on "historic and cultural resources", increases in energy consumption and increased air pollution caused by greater road traffic use.
The scale of these fees would be drawn up by the Government but they would be charged by local councils. Because they need to be hefty to have a deterrent effect, they will be one of the task force's most controversial ideas.
The report proposes a series of measures to increase the market supply of brownfield land, including requiring public bodies to release redundant buildings, introducing an empty property strategy in every borough, launching a national campaign to reclaim contaminated land and - as also forecast in The Independent - harmonising VAT on materials for building new houses (currently zero) and for conversion of old ones (currently 17.5 per cent).
To improve the urban environment the report proposes to create home zones where pedestrians have priority, direct 65 per cent of public transport expenditure at pedestrians and cyclists, and introduce a national campaign to improve urban design, with a network of local architecture centres.
And to encourage people to move to, and continue to live in, urban areas, it proposes a number of tax reliefs. They include relief on home contents and car insurance (in areas of high crime), removal or reduction of stamp duty on house purchase, and lower council tax. The task force also proposes a renaissance fund of pounds 500m to be spread over 10 years, which could be used by people in the neighbourhood to remove eyesores and improve the look of their own areas.
The report was widely welcomed yesterday. "We now have a route map towards an urban renaissance," said Kate Parminter, director of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. "The Government as a whole needs to follow it with vigour and determination." A spokesman for the Royal Institute of British Architects said the report "heralds new hope for British towns and cities".
The Friends of the Earth housing campaigner, Tony Bosworth, said Lord Rogers had "outlined a radical and exciting vision for making our towns and cities places for people rather than for cars".
Letters, Review, page 2
The Main Points
t Some greenfield land for housing to be deallocated
t Countryside developers to face environmental impact fees
t Public bodies and utilities to release redundant urban land and buildings; every council to have an empty property strategy; all contaminated land brought back into use by 2030
t VAT to be harmonised on new housebuilding and residential conversions
t National campaign to improve urban design, with local architecture centres
t 65 per cent of transport expenditure to be on projects to benefit pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users
t Creation of Home Zones that put pedestrians first
t Introduction of Urban Priority Areas where special companies will promote regeneration (the first to be launched in Liverpool today)
t Lower council tax, tax relief on home contents and car insurance, and lower or zero stamp duty on house purchases in Urban Priority Areas
t Renaissance Fund of pounds 500m over 10 years for local groups to improve their own neighbourhoods
Six Success Stories, A Vision and A Failure
The task force praises the restoration of the Suffolk town's Wet Dock, built in the 1840s and, at the time, the biggest in Europe. It fell into disrepair in the 1980s with the decline of sea-borne trade but it now has a future "which may even exceed its past", according to the report, as a social centre with offices, pubs, restaurants and a marina.
Once notorious as a racetrack round a shopping centre (the infamous Bull Ring), central Birmingham is now much more pedestrian-friendly, says the report. Landmark schemes such as Brindley Place and the Jewellery Quarter have revitalised the city, which is tackling transport problems, for example, by reintroducing trams to link with Wolverhampton.
The unlikeliest corners of cities can be revived and, on a housing estate in John Prescott's constituency, a project is transforming a rubbish-choked canal. Known as The Drain, it is just a dividing line on the Preston Road estate. Now residents are seeking funding from pounds 800m set aside over next three years in the New Deal for Communities to make a water feature of it.
The Task Force names Nottingham's Lace Market as an outstanding example of urban turnaround. It was at the centre of an international lace trade in the 19th century but by the 1970s the area was blighted and decayed. But the city has renovated the Lace Market so successfully that today it is a fashionable address for residents and businesses, with "a very promising future".
In 1998 Coventry became the first city centre to be managed and promoted by a Partnership Company, formed by the council and the private sector to make the city centre cleaner, more secure and more welcoming. A "quick clean" hit squad operates a zero tolerance policy for litter. "Phoenix" is the pedestrianised art trail, to be financed by pounds 10m of lottery funding.
The report praises the positive examples of regeneration as on a par with the best in Europe. The Calls and Riverside district is now "filled with entertainment, media and creative businesses, hotels, housing, shops and visitor attractions", and is a "lively mixed-use extension of the city centre". The city's management is praised: shoppers are back despite out of town superstores.
Ifield Special School in Gravesend put together its vision of what the town may look like in 20 years. Pupils think robots will pick up litter and "zap it" in tree-lined streets while rubbish is turned into recycled materials. People work and shop at Internet cafes, a force field covering the town stops acid rain from falling, cars are banned and there are fast ferries to Essex.
The Millennium Village on the Greenwich Peninsula is the Government's flagship housing project, and John Prescott hailed it as a role model - "an example of a thriving community in the middle of a city like London". But built next to the Dome on the cleaned-up soil of an old British Gas works, the project has severe problems and the architects HTA resigned on Monday
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