Britain 2011: the return of anti-urban development
John P. Houghton reviews an ominous year for Britain’s towns and cities
The forces of anti-urban development returned to Britain in 2011, driven by the policies of the Conservative-Liberal coalition government. For much of the previous century, anti-urban development made Britain one of the most spatially unequal countries in Europe. Many cities emptied out as households left for the suburbs, and industries collapsed or relocated to out-of-town developments.
For the first decade of our century, these forces were restrained, though never fully challenged, by the pro-urban policies and sustainability principles of the New Labour government. The Third Way / Neue Mitte approach sought to meld together social justice with economic competitiveness; investing in skills, public services and urban infrastructure to help people and places compete in the global economy.
Many of their efforts were relatively modest, but still meaningful. Out-of-town developments were discouraged, average densities for new developments increased and many city centres were regenerated after years of decline. Cities like Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield prospered after several difficult decades.
Overall, the quality of life gap between the poorest neighbourhoods and the rest of the country was reduced. Much of this progress was halted by the recession. The anti-urban planning policies of the Conservative-Liberal coalition, and the prospect of a return to recession, threaten to reverse it entirely. By the end of 2011, many cities, and the struggling neighbourhoods within them, were in a fragile state.
Build, build, build
In support of the reforms, Prime Minister David Cameron argued that the planning system needed radical simplification in order “to build more houses, to help more young people to get on the housing ladder.” Opponents of the draft Framework were portrayed as selfish ‘NIMBYs’, denying people on lower incomes the chance to buy their own homes, while they sat comfortably in theirs, writing indignant letters to the Daily Telegraph.
This argument was discredited by another of the reforms contained in the Framework. Local planning policies wouldn’t actually need to make provision for the social or affordable homes that might give moderate-income households and young couples their first step on the housing ladder. The Framework – which remains the subject of intense debate today - is not, ultimately, about helping people to buy their own homes.
As 2011 developed and the economic outlook darkened, the real purpose of the Framework became more and more clear. The government wants to use housebuilding as a desperate economic stimulus. Anything should be built anywhere, regardless of the quality of the housing or the sustainability of the proposed ‘neighbourhood’. Keeping the economy running is all that matters; but concrete makes a very poor engine fuel.
The growing threat to sustainable cities
Existing cities will also suffer as investment, jobs and households are leeched out. And it’s the poorest households who will pay the greatest price; isolated in poor-quality, segregated sprawl developments or marooned in declining urban neighbourhoods. It was clear by the middle of 2011 that many deprived neighbourhoods were coming under increased strain. For the first time in over 40 years, England had no national urban regeneration programme. The government’s spending cuts were being applied most deeply in the areas with the highest levels of poverty. Homelessness and unemployment continued to rise.
There were many factors behind the riots of summer 2011. But many people in the affected areas point to the feeling of hopelessness amongst young people who are faced with the prospect of poverty, unemployment and a decline in living standards. If Britain follows the path it started to set in 2011, another period of anti-urban development could deal a crippling blow to the neighbourhoods, towns and cities which had recovered and started to re-grow in recent decades.
John P. Houghton is a writer on cities, housing and regeneration and a consultant at Shared Intelligence. Views are expressed here in a personal capacity. You can follow John on Twitter at @Metlines