1. Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its origins, its transformations, and its prospects, Harmondsworth, Pelican, 1961
2. Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward, Arcadia for All: The Legacy of a Makeshift Landscape, Nottingham, Five Leaves, 2004
3. James Heartfield, Let's Build! - Why we need five million new homes in the next 10 years, London, audacity, 2006
Abolish the Green Belt and abolish the "City"
Sometimes I am asked to describe the sort of city I want. There is something very quaint about being asked to draft a planning policy for a city - rather like writing "The Future for Steam Power", or "What next for patriarchy?" The truth is that British people do not live in compact cities any longer, but in suburbs.
Over time, better roads, cars, trains and trams have increased the distance people travel to work. That in turn has let them spread out over the countryside. The effect is quite marked. Population densities have fallen over time, so that most of us live far less close to our neighbours than our grandparents did to theirs.
That fool Lewis Mumford thought that we always lived in cities, and always will. (1) But the link between Babylon and today's built-up areas is just a word, "City", that tells us almost nothing.
The nineteenth century saw the creation of the place that we recognise as the industrial city, whose template still persists today, though it too no longer describes the way people live.
In the nineteenth century it made sense to divide the land between the town and the country. Industry had to be concentrated. Labourers' wages did not allow big commutes. They lived at the pithead, or by the factory. Also, every acre of countryside was farmed extensively - to feed horses, mules and men. Progressives knew that the antagonism between town and country was not just a technical necessity, but a trap that held people back. They looked forward to the day when the divide of town and country was abolished.
Over time the nineteenth century city has been superceded. In the interwar years working class people bought up cheap land in Kent and Essex and made their own "plotlands", that grew into places like Pitsea and Jaywick Sands. (2) Or more conventionally they moved to the new ribbon developments of houses growing up alongside main roads.
The ruling elite always hated the way that the plebs kept moving further out of town, slowly breaking down the boundary between town and country. They had relied on the aristocracy to enforce the monopoly over land, but impoverished, they had leapt at the chance to sell up under the 1882 Settled Lands Act - leaving an opening for ordinary people to buy land to farm or live on.
Today's Green Belt policies are an outcome of the apoplectic reaction of the Tory Shires to "ribbon development". The (then) Council for the Preservation of Rural England was founded in 1926 to halt the "blight". It lobbied for a Green Belt around London in 1938 and around historic towns and cities across the country by 1955.
The Green Belt has been a huge problem for house building. Since the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, ownership of land is no longer enough to be able to build. Instead, you have to get permission from the planning authorities to build on your own land. In areas called "Green Belt" around historic towns and cities permission is generally refused.
In the long run, Green Belt planning policy is like King Canute, trying to hold back the waves. I know he knew he couldn't hold back the waves, but it stands as a metaphor.
Farmland is so productive by comparison to 1900 that we need much less of it grow our food on. Farmers are selling up. Land is going begging. Naturally, more people want to spread out into the countryside. In time they will. Policy makers call it the "counter-urban cascade".
But in the meantime, the policy of hemming us into the cities is straining against that positive trend. Tory shires and urban Stalinists are united in their wish to hang onto the old geographic division. Ken Livingstone does not want his Council Charge payers to drift off to Essex - walled into the City they are the source of his power. Nor do the Bufton Tuftons want to share their precious Home Counties stockbroker belt with common oiks.
These artificial constraints on housing growth have led to the lowest number of homes completed in decades. The last low point was in 2001, when only 162,000 homes were built in Britain, compared with 413,000 in 1967. The numbers did pick up again, but just reached 200,000 in 2007, and will probably slump again. That is a problem because Britain needs to build at least 240,000 each year for new households, plus 260,000 to begin to replace the worst houses that ought to come down, assuming a low rate of stock demolition of 1% per annum. (3)
In 2007 only 200,000 homes were built in Britain, nearly half as flats, with few demolitions from the existing stock of ageing housing.
In short supply, homes have risen in price. Currently Britons have four trillion pounds invested in the privately owned housing stock. Imagine any other sector of the economy that absorbed that much capital, and saw its output fall to an historic low.
The price boom was stoked by cheap credit. Some people think that if credit is dear again that will fix the housing problem. But they do not understand that rising prices was only a symptom of the problem of undersupply. If credit is not available, it will not create enough homes to live in. It will just mean that we have less money to buy them. Prices would fall, but not enough to let you buy a house.
In March 2008 Gypsies started to build themselves a place to live at Darlingscott, near Shipston-on-Stour, in Warwickshire. It became pressworthy because Tessa Jowell's husband David Mills has a home there. Though the local Tory councillor Chris Saint has tried to lead a mob against them, the Gypsies own their land, which they bought from a farmer. They have put in a septic tank and put up fences.
What they do not have is planning permission - the say so of the high and mighty town councillors from Stratford-on-Avon District Council.
Instead of being reviled, the Warwickshire Gypsies should be championed for what they are - leaders of a rebellion against the planning laws. Their illegal land-right squatting is the natural reaction of people who have been barred from building homes legally.
We should abolish the Green Belt. It is no help to anyone. There is no shortage of land. Nine tenths of Britain is not built up. Lifting the artificial constraints on growth will let people build where they want. As people move towards lower density living, and conurbations extend along communication lines and coasts, it will become obvious that the "City" has long been superceded.
Abolish the Green Belt and abolish the "City"
James Heartfield 16.04.2008
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