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Letwin: Healthy cities, healthy countryside

Speech to the Environmental Services Association

"Every year, 21 square miles of countryside, an area larger than Slough, disappears under new development.

As if that were not enough, the Government's Barker Review proposes that the equivalent of 26 towns the size of Slough should be built by 2020.

The character and tranquillity of rural Britain will be lost over a much wider area than the bulldozer's path.

Not even the once sacrosanct green belt is safe.

In a recent response to a parliamentary question, the Government admitted that around four square miles of green belt are being built on every year.

The Government claim to be adding to the green belt - and, indeed, they are: by expanding it on its outer edge, well away from development pressure, while stripping it away from the inside.

Not so much a belt, then, but an elastic band that stretches as the countryside shrinks.

And what is the response of the Conservative Party as the Government lays waste to rural England? We are out there manning our metaphorical barricades, shaking our scythes and pitchforks at the advancing army of bulldozers. It makes a huge noise locally, and the reverberations can sometimes be heard far away in Government.

Unfortunately, the bulldozers don't seem to care much. They are hardly dented, much less arrested.

So the destruction goes on, and the countryside shrinks.

Soon, southern England will be one large, landscaped housing estate - with the odd car-park, posing as a motorway, thrown in.

The price of urban ugliness

In short, our tactics don't seem to be working.

Why not?

The straight answer is that the metaphorical barricades won't stop the bulldozers because they can't stop the market demanding more suburban dwellings.

If we want to do anything constructive and effective about the problem, we have to understand what is causing it.

And, once we start looking seriously for the cause, it isn't hard to find.

The pressure of development on the countryside has one overwhelming cause: the exodus from the cities.

According to the Halifax, in the ten years to 2003, over two million people left London - mostly for the suburbs, towns and villages of southern England.

Others take their place, of course, from other British cities and from abroad.

And, in time, many of these will also join the exodus into the countryside - a flow of humanity which compares with the great migrations of history.

Yet what drives people out from the city to the country isn't death, war, famine or pestilence, but that fifth horseman, ugliness - which may take many forms:

The physical threat of crime and anti-social behaviour

The mental stress of a dirty, noisy congested environment.

The spiritual deprivation of a daily routine unrelieved by glimpses of urban beauty.

The urban rich isolate themselves from this ugliness, by buying themselves into elevated positions - often quite literally.

From the penthouse canopy, the concrete jungle doesn't look so bad.

In fact, when lit up at night it's quite fetching and the streams of traffic all the more so.

That does for the weekdays. And, at weekends, when they might otherwise be forced to confront the reality on the ground, the urban rich escape to the countryside - in second homes which price local country people out of the housing market and progressively undermine rural life, turning once thriving village communities into dormitories.

The middle classes can't afford the penthouse or the country cottage, but they can get out - to the expanding suburbs and commuter towns.

As they move out to the suburbs, the green belt comes under strain and, notch by notch, is loosened by Government policy.

Finally, there are the least advantaged who are stuck where they are.

They suffer a spiral of decline. The more the middle classes move out, the less money there is to invest in local businesses or the improvement of property.

Council revenues fall, leaving local authorities with less money to invest in public spaces.

There is a further deterioration in the local environment, and yet more of those who can leave do so, trapping those who can't leave in a vicious circle of uglification.

Urban ugliness affects different people in different ways. But the losers are the countryside and the least advantaged city-dwellers.

This is environmentally and socially unsustainable

Changing the equation

The lesson is clear.

If we want to preserve the countryside instead of fighting a losing rearguard action to keep the second-homers and the suburban bulldozers at bay, we must make our cities places where people want to live.

Of course, there will always be those who want a rural way of life, just as there will always be those who will move to the city.

But, for many, ugliness is a price not worth paying despite all the other advantages of the city.

Change the equation by making the city more beautiful, and many will make a different decision.

Tipping the market: private and mutual ownership

Urban beauty is neither unprecedented nor impossible.

So how do we make our cities as beautiful as any in the world?

First of all, we must realise that the heavy hand of government building and re-building is not the solution.

Look at our cities.

Look what the government built.

A lot of it isn't pretty.

A lot of it doesn't seem to be built with people in mind.

Once the architects have gone away, it's the people left behind who make the difference. If they live in state-built buildings that lack the human touch, will they pick up the litter or drop it?

Will they mend the windows or break them?

Will they plant the trees or chop them down?

One of the great lessons of the 1980s was the huge improvement in the urban environment that could be created in places where people exercised their right to buy on a large scale - different ownership patterns generated different attitudes, and a new pride in places generated a new look to places.

That is why the Conservative Party was right at the last election to talk about an extension of the right to buy - and why we would be right in the next few years to think through the opportunities for mutualisation of ownership in areas where private ownership cannot be extended.

If we want to see the urban environment improved, there is nothing we can do which is more important than giving urban communities a sense of ownership of their surroundings.

Tipping the market: public action in public spaces

But the responsibility for the beautifying of the urban environment is a shared responsibility.

Government, too, has to play a continuing role.

This is especially true of the public spaces that bind together the private places of a city.

As individuals, we have neither the incentive nor the resources to beautify whole townscapes and parkscapes - not when we struggle with our own homes and gardens.

And even the very rich, who might have the money, and just possibly, the inclination, don't have the power.

After all, there's no point in creating a park if someone else can build all over it.

Public spaces require public action. Just as the great parks of our great cities were once founded by public agencies, so, now, our public spaces must be improved and maintained by the public authorities.

It is only the public authorities that have the cash and the power to do what is in the interests of all the citizens but not in the interests of any one citizen.

And this further action to improve and beautify public spaces has to go right out to the peripheries - deep into the poverty belt that surrounds so many of our city centres.

In the words of the Bishop of Liverpool, there is a "real danger that…our cities could fall sick with…urban diabetes…that is, the blood pumps around the heart of prestigious city-centre projects but fails to get to the extremities of the body…these parts of the city then wither and die."

He is right; the lifeblood of beauty must pump round the whole body - not just to the downtown loft dwellers, but to every community across every city.

If restricted to the geographical centre, or to the centre of power, urban regeneration will fail.

Public action: going beyond public spaces

The sad fact is that, at present, many of the public spaces in our cities are run down rather than kept up. They diminish, rather than enhance, the quality of life. They dishearten rather than inspire the private citizens seeking to beautify their own patches.

Too often, there is a sense that the whole apparatus of urban planning is reactive, prohibitive, negative and that pro-active efforts to improve the green spaces and the street scenes, are limited, lethargic and timid.

But even when improvements are made to the urban public spaces, all too often private business leaves a remaining blot on the landscape.

There is a street in a British city - I shall not name the street or the city - that I have seen, on and off over a number of years. It contains some blocks of flats, not too big. It contains some business premises, some bigger, some smaller. Over the years, the local authority has considerably smartened the road surface, the pavements, the street-lighting. This aesthetic improvement has run in parallel with refurbishment, both of the blocks of flats and of several of the business premises.

The street is 'on the way up'.

But the whole thing is let down by a car park that is ill-maintained, with tumbledown fencing, piles of rubbish and ill-assorted shacks, and by a small patch of ugly, concrete wasteland that must once have contained a building but has now lain empty for 10 years.

Here is a classic case of shared responsibility: the public authority has done its bit for the public spaces; individuals and some of the businesses have done their bit for much of the private space. Surely, we need to find some means for the public authority to induce the remaining private businesses to do likewise for the common good?


Let me provide an example of the way in which the private and the public can work together to achieve the common good of urban regeneration.

Sadly, it is not a British example.

It concerns the town of Bar-le-Duc in north-eastern France.

The town and its buildings are old.

Thirty years ago they looked just about dead.

The stonework was filthy with years of grime.

The masonry was crumbling.

Paint flaked from window sills and shutters hung off their hinges.

To English eyes, it was a scene of decay, perhaps more expected of the Balkans than Western Europe.

But the town council decided to make a difference.

Public buildings were cleaned up and people saw just how beautiful their own houses might look, so there was no real opposition when the council required all property owners to clean the frontages of their homes and offices within five years.

As an added touch, there was a further requirement to re-paint shutters and window sills within a given palette of colours based on the town's coat of arms.

That might seem just a little bossy to us.

But the result was stunning.

Beauty had returned to Bar-le-Duc - as did much of its former population.

Abandoned buildings were restored. And so was a medieval market, which now does a thriving trade after centuries of disuse.

Restaurants have opened and local shops are there to stay.

Property prices are up, but not outrageously so - because regeneration pervaded the whole community, not just privileged enclaves.

The process of beautification goes on. Not at the behest of the council, but because of local pride - everyone now wants their home to look as good as their neighbours'.

This is no Paris commune, just an unremarkable corner of everyday France.

People get on with their own lives, in their own homes, minding their own business.

But, by creating the right conditions, authority as an expression of community has allowed individual interests to work for the public interest.

Urban regeneration in Britain: the way forward

My argument, so far, is simple:

First: our countryside is being eaten away by the bulldozers and our rural communities are being eaten away by second homes.

Second: there is no point in hoping that we will stop, or even substantially impede the process by rural protest, because the pressure for suburban and rural development is caused by a mass exodus from the cities of all but the disadvantaged.

Third: the exodus from the cities is driven by urban ugliness and the conditions of life that such ugliness fosters.

Fourth: if we are to save the countryside, we have to find effective means of making our cities more beautiful.

Fifth: this does not mean repeating the mistaken public sector building projects of the past; on the contrary, it means extending private ownership and mutual ownership so that people feel a spiritual ownership of their surroundings.

Sixth:it also means the public authorities paying far greater attention to the quality of public spaces.

Seventh: as importantly, it means public authority more pro-actively encouraging private business and private individuals to play their part in a common enterprise to beautify the city.

And now we come to the really difficult bit.

If we are to save the countryside by beautifying the cities, and if this involves, among other things, public authorities pro-actively encouraging private business and private individuals to play their part in a common enterprise to beautify the city, how do the public authorities achieve this goal without excessive nannying and collateral social and economic damage? What is the recipe for achieving the Bar-le-Duc effect on a much wider scale?

Like other really difficult questions, this is not one that can be answered in a single speech - or, indeed, by a single politician.

I shall rest content if my argument creates a debate about how we can foster a sense of shared responsibility for urban regeneration - especially if that debate recognises also the vital role that urban regeneration has to play in saving our countryside.

But I want to end by providing, at least, a few pointers towards what seem to me the most fruitful avenues of exploration, when it comes to the role of public authorities in fostering a sense of shared responsibility for urban beautification.

The most obvious point, I believe, is the need to adopt what I described in a previous speech as an attitude of thorough-going localisation.

The ugliness of much of our urban environment, and the destruction of much of our countryside that is driven by the consequent urban exodus, is a national problem and one which our national government cannot afford to neglect. But the solution to the problem must be local, not national, because it must be based on a profound and detailed understanding of place and of the desires, habits and concerns of those who live in that place.

Accordingly, I do not believe that there is much hope of achieving the desired urban transformation through yet more, highly specific national schemes.

Schemes, rules, performance monitoring, reports, evaluations, committees and the like tend to be the enemies rather than the friends of progress so far as urban regeneration and urban beautification are concerned.

What is required, rather, is a willingness on the part of central government to take more on trust - to take more risk: to provide local public authorities with more power and rather more access to unconstrained funds; to augment, rather than to diminish, the role and standing of locally elected representatives; to foster in as unconstrained a way as possible, participation by local businesses; to lead by rhetoric the establishment of a national sense of shared responsibility for the urban environment; but to avoid the imposition of targets, the issuing of directives and central intervention.

In short, whilst the question is national, the answer is not.

We need, as a nation, to ask how we can achieve a consciousness of shared responsibility for our urban environment. We need, as a nation, to set a framework that allows and encourages urban communities and urban authorities to take such shared responsibility. This is the only way in which we can at one and the same time enhance the lives of the least advantaged urban dwellers and save our countryside from what is otherwise bound to be a continuing exodus of the more advantaged. But we need to recognise that the answer to the question - the specific action within the framework - cannot be formulated at national level. It has to be formulated locally and in response to the particularities of local circumstance.

The health of our nation, and hence the health of our countryside, depends on achieving a culture of shared responsibility for urban aesthetic renewal which is national in scope but local in form."

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