THREE CHEERS FOR 'URBAN SPRAWL'

“Hands off Our Land!” screams the Daily Telegraph, like some shotgun-toting red-faced farmer.  The newspaper, on behalf of the reactionary toffs who form the least pleasant section of its readership, has launched a campaign directed against ‘urban sprawl’ (ie. the rest of us).

On a good day, the Telegraph serves up enlightened articles by progressive liberals like Janet Daley and Simon Heffer and Jeff Randal (I’m talking about real liberals here, not American Trotskyites).  But then it disappears under the desk, drinks some devilish, bubbling potion and emerges looking like Mr Hyde, all wonky teeth and messy hair.  “Hands off Our Land” is the Telegraph at its worst - a campaign to thwart the government’s all-too-modest suggestions to reform Britain’s vicious planning laws.  

NIMBY (Not In My Back-Yard) is a misnomer.  As James Heartfield observes in his brilliant book Let's Build! if it was their back-yard there wouldn’t be a problem.  By “Our Land”, the Telegraph’s Colonel Blimps do not mean “land owned by us”.  They mean “other people’s land”, over which they wish to continue to exercise control via the State. 

The battle against suburbanisation (which the Greens these days clothe in the jargon of 'sustainability') has been going on for decades, and the success of the NIMBYs in keeping the bulk of Britain’s population locked inside towns and cities, has disfigured Britain and blighted the lives of millions of people.  As a result of State planning restrictions, Britons are stuffed into towns and cities like battery-farmed chickens.  We are among the most densely packed people in the world.  In Britain, 90 percent of people live in urban areas.  In Germany (which has a similar population density) only 75 percent of people live in urban areas, while only 68 percent of Italians live in urban areas, and only 62 percent of the Irish (is the Italian or Irish countryside so awful?).  In India only 30 percent of the people live in urban areas. 

And to make matters much worse for the Brits, our urban areas constitute a mere 9 percent of total land use.  That’s right - 90 percent of the people crammed into 9 percent of Britain.  Compare that to the 13 percent of land devoted to ‘Green Belt’ (the stuff holding us in).  Even in the South East of England, by far the most densely crowded bit of the UK, woodland and farmland, absurdly, accounts for more than three quarters of land use. 

Britain is not a crowded island – contrary to the frothing rants from the misanthropes at the Telegraph.  Viewers wrote in to express their incredulity when the BBC broadcast a series called ‘Britain from Above’.  The BBC helicopters filmed hour after hour of vast, unending tracts of flat, rectangular fields and giant swathes of green nothingness.  It was astonishing to the naïve urbanites watching to see how empty the place was.  (Just take a look on Google satellite images).  The reason why Britain feels, to most of us, like an overcrowded island, is because all most of us ever see are congested towns and cities (or a fleeting glimpse of industrial farmland out of a car window as we travel along ‘urban corridors’ between towns). 

Hemming people into towns and cities with ‘Green Belts’, has acted like a pressure-cooker on property prices.  The planning system, by limiting the amount of land available to build on, has created an artificial shortage of living space, forcing up the prices of houses and flats to such astronomical heights that many young couples can only dream of affording one.  The less affluent dare not get a job for fear of losing housing benefit.  There are families in London where the children sleep three and four to a room – a tiny room in a dingy flat.  Children who have outgrown their cots are forced to stay in them, sleeping with their legs bent (I have direct knowledge of such cases).  It is impossible to document the sheer bloody misery caused by the planning system - countless examples of diminished lives.  Even well paid professional couples in London now struggle to afford dark, crumbling Victorian houses, in rough parts of town.  Houses built for costermongers and chimney sweeps in the late 19th Century.

But it goes far beyond property prices. Soaring urban land values have a knock-on effect, raising the cost of everything, from cinema tickets to shoes.  The land and property shortage (artificially created remember) has pushed all prices up, reducing our quality of lives in a myriad of unseen ways.  Meanwhile, the few remaining patches of green in our towns and cities are fast shrinking and disappearing. Gardens are designated ‘brown-field’ sites to allow more flats and houses to be built.  Houses are horribly divided into tiny disfigured flats.  School fields, parks and squares are shrinking and disappearing at an alarming rate, extra blocks of flats spring up everywhere, like weeds in the cracks.  The shocking effect of Green Belts has been to empty our urban areas of green spaces, and yet, as State planners know fine well, these are the most cherished bits of green in Britain, giving far more people, far more pleasure than ‘the countryside’ (to which so few of us go).  Worryingly, the London Planning Advisory Committee has decided that London has room for 570,000 extra homes.  As James Heartfield pleads, ‘Do we really want every inch of London packed with houses, instead of parks, squares, playgrounds and other amenities?’  And of course transport in our congested urban areas has become a living hell.  They cram us in then prohibit us from parking anywhere and charge us for causing ‘congestion’.

Nor is the misery confined to the towns. Green Belts have killed the countryside.  Although a gigantic amount of Britain’s land mass is reserved for agriculture, farming accounts for less than one percent of Britain’s economic activity (and even this is massively subsidised).  In the countryside itself, only 3 percent of people actually work in agriculture.  It is argued the countryside must be preserved in order to protect traditional communities and ways of life.  But there is nothing traditional about our countryside.  The vast, boring fields you see today bear no resemblance to the small, labour-intensive agriculture of old.  The landscape has changed, the ‘communities’ have changed, the economics has changed.  Nor should we idealise what went before … grovelling, impoverished tenant small-holders and agricultural labourers (and before them serfs) breaking their backs to maintain the idle gentry.   Life for the rural masses was poor, hard, dull and servile. 

The NIMBYism of the new gentry (organised, for example, in the Council for the Protection of Rural England) has stunted and thwarted genuine economic development in the countryside.  The vast bulk of Britain is now a wasteland, a poorly attended heritage theme-park, fit for well-heeled second-homers to live out their naff rural fantasy every third weekend.  Ordinary folk in the countryside are reduced to working in National Trust postcard shops, and with their meagre wages, they struggle to afford small nasty-looking houses which face directly onto busy A-roads.  No wonder the young want to get the hell out. 

But the battle over planning laws has nothing to do with the giant wide open spaces in Northumbria and wherever else, because no-one in their right mind wants to go and live there.   The land in dispute is in truth much smaller.  The desire for planning restrictions is really an expression of upper class disdain for suburbs, and the people who live in them and like them.  Peter Hall, the professor of planning at the Bartlett School of Architecture, in his book Cities of Tomorrow, exposes the motives behind ‘sustainable development’, which in effect means ‘pulling up the drawbridge to stop anyone else entering their well-healed enclaves (save a few select people like themselves, whom it would be quite fun to invite for drinks on Sundays) … pulling up the drawbridge against newcomers, especially if they lack the right income or right accent.’ 

The snobbery and hatred of the suburbs dates back to the end of the 19th Century.  The railways allowed the first suburbs to flourish as the working and lower-middle-class ‘clerk’ class, experiencing prosperity for the first time, sought to escape the urban slums, to have a little house and a little garden.  The suburbs were considered vile because of the people who inhabited them. In a book called The Suburbans, written in 1905, the poet T.W.H. Crossland launched a vitriolic attack on the ‘low and inferior species’, the ‘soulless’ class of ‘clerks’ who were spreading into the new comfortable houses in the suburbs, eating tinned salmon.  He was disgusted by them, their aspiration to self improvement, offensively self-made and self-assured.

Professor John Carey, in his magnificent book The Intellectuals and the Masses, describes the widespread upper class loathing of the newly enriched masses and their suburban ways.  In Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, two characters are leaving England in an airplane. They recall Shakespeare’s description of England, ‘This precious stone set in a silver sea’, but then they look out the window.  They see the ‘straggling’ suburbs, the hills sown with bungalows, the wireless masts and overhead power cables, and ‘men and women, indiscernible except as tiny spots’ who were ‘marrying and shopping and making money and having children.’  Then one of Waugh’s characters says, ‘I think I’m going to be sick.’

HG Wells contemptuously describes suburbs as a ‘tumorous growth’ … ‘ignoble’ Croydon and ‘tragic’ West Ham.  Betjeman of course pleaded to the Nazis, ‘Come friendly bombs and land on Slough, it isn’t fit for humans now’.  The suburbs were “Bathed in the yellow vomit” of sodium lamps.  Carey describes Betjeman’s horror of the suburbs, ‘harbouring the mixed bag of atrocities with which Betjeman associates with progress – radios, cars, advertisements, labour-saving homes, peroxide blondes, crooked businessmen, litter, painted toenails and people who wear public-school ties to which they are not entitled.’

The vile lower orders had to be stopped.  It is no accident that one of the key figures in post-war planning was Sir Patrick Abercrombie, founder and head of the Council for the Protection of Rural England.  Planners like Abercrombie knew that ordinary folk were itching to escape the grimy crowded towns.  But instead of the semi-detached houses with nice back gardens, which they craved, they would have to be stacked high in tower blocks.  The planners knew that it wasn’t what people wanted.  They knew that people wanted a little space of their own, with a little back lawn where they could keep an eye on their three-year old playing.  A fairly modest, basic human desire in this day and age, you might think, and yet one they would be deprived of.

A system of Green Belts was devised to keep the proles locked in.  Professor Hall refers to Green Belts, correctly, as ‘the polite English version of apartheid’ … ‘a system of controlling and regulating the suburban tide to a degree that would have been unthinkable in the United States’.  The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 effectively nationalised the right to develop land.  Hall describes how the containment of the lower orders in increasingly crowded urban areas, and the resulting inflation of land and property prices, led to distress on a vast scale.  Since land was so scarce and pricey, to build houses which people could actually afford, private builders were forced to build smaller and smaller homes, reducing the quality to make them less expensive.

As the private housing market was strangled, it was decided that instead the State would build inner-city accommodation for the masses.  They were to be confined to urban areas, forced to live in high densities in high-rise blocks.  Rather than chose their own home in a free market, ordinary people had to apply to the State to be housed and would be allocated one (a very nasty State produced home).  By the 1970s around a third of the British population lived in State housing.  The State thus determined how and where we should live.  Over the years, it has become suffocating.  Green spaces inside towns have shrunk or disappeared as more and more nasty council blocks have been crammed in.  Early ‘leafy suburbs’ like Ealing have become more and more crowded and less and less leafy.  Now, they feel like part of the towns, only without the attractions of the bright lights.  In Britain, the dream of better living stopped in 1947.

We have had enough of all this crap about ‘protecting the countryside’.  Planning (let us call it what it is: authoritarian State control of our lives) has always been primarily a tool of social prejudice.  Behind the cult of the British countryside, from Wordsworth and Ruskin onwards, has always been contempt for the masses.   Who are we protecting the ‘countryside’ for?   And from whom are we protecting it? 

Let us be honest about ‘the countryside’.   These days it is largely made up of very big, very flat rectangular fields used for (largely pointless, subsidised) industrial farming … not at all beautiful and frankly the last place you would want to have a picnic. (Ironically most of the green rural fantasists in our midst tend to hang out in relatively crowded places like Southwold and Alderburgh (to enjoy the music festivals) and the ‘Wordsworth-country’ bit of the Lake District where Beatrix Potter lived.)

Very few bits of the countryside look like it does in Postman Pat, and these bits are enjoyed by very few people indeed.   Let’s have more of them.  Wonderfully landscaped areas – big ones - not far from towns and suburbs, accessible to lots of people, with adjacent toilets and cafes and car-parks.  We do not want Green Belts, we want Green Patches – big parks and broad, lovely town squares, and large chunks of beautifully landscaped green spaces, close to where people live.  We want green everyone can enjoy.  And in between the green bits, we demand the freedom to build what we want, where we want. Three cheers for ‘Urban Sprawl’, the motor car, roads, supermarkets, golf courses and service stations.

It’s time to get angry with the angry-brigade at the Telegraph.  To get angry with the organic, home-grown TV chefs and their agro-hobbyist friends, with the grungy middle class road protesters (imaging themselves to be radical), with the suburb-hating, supermarket-opposing, free-range chicken loving reactionaries, the metropolitan elite who can afford second-homes, yet who would deny first-homes to others, the heritage bores and bearded ramblers and people who drink cloudy expensive beer from local breweries and write bad guide books and erect plaques everywhere and think Ruskin had a point.  It’s time to get angry with Prince Charles – the Dark Lord, and his toady friend Richard Rogers, who thinks we should all live in shoe-boxes.  This collection of bigots are trying to keep us in our place.  They have damaged the lives of millions of people.  Now they must be stopped.

 

 

 

Comments (10)

"Three cheers for ‘Urban

"Three cheers for ‘Urban Sprawl’, the motor car, roads, supermarkets, golf courses and service stations"

Hear, Hear Martin!
What is more beautiful than the country side or more important than a publicly subsidised art gallery? Human beings living in dignity, comfort and happiness.
This is the true beauty of economic growth that the "trendy elites of all stripes are not in the faintest bit interested.
Liberty for all us who are cooped up and over taxed for the pleasures of the few by those who know best.

Pointman - you are very very

Pointman - you are very very wrong with your believe that Cornwall is the most 'unspoilt' countryside in england - it is the most spoilt (post industrial) landscape in Europe. The soils are saturated with residue heavy metals to render new development far too costly for all but the most determined and wealthy developer.

The belief that we have a disposable countryside is also questionable. It is certainly not being used probably and I agree with the main thrust of the argument in that we should not continue to think that our landscape is anything extraordinary - but it can be!

But one point that everyone seems to dismiss, yet it is important, that in English common law it remains the case that all 'land onwership' is in fact freehold tenure. We need to provide housing and we need to ensure good design, we need to preserve biodiversity and culture and a platform for 21st century economics in a resourceless country - surely what is most needed is proper sustainable development, which exists it is just that the English struggle to understand what is fairly basic concept. NIMBYs paying for their Telegraph or NT membership do not understand it and neither do those who see nothing wrong with the childish draft NPPF Greg Clark was so chuffed with.

Excellent job, Martin. THIS

Excellent job, Martin.

THIS web page is an excellent resource for academic analysis criticising urban growth containment:

http://www.performanceurbanplanning.org/academics.html

Paul Cheshire and colleagues at the London School of Economics are outstanding - you should contact him. Read his papers and you will see what I mean. I would love to see you make a documentary on this subject.

The earlier commenter about Australia is exactly right too. This unreason has spread beyond just Britain.

Besides the inequity effects, there is a material impact on an economy when its planning system is so cumbersome; there are anti-competitive effects, and the high price of urban land and housing undermines international economic competitiveness and erodes productivity. The McKinsey Institute's 1998 paper "Driving Productivity and Growth in the UK economy", and Alan W. Evans' two books from 2004, go into this in depth.

Martin, There's a link

Martin,

There's a link between your points here and "the planning class" you pinpointed in you later piece, The Green Superstate.

I've been banging on about the failure of the planning system for a good twentyfive years---almost to the point where I'm sick of the sound of my own voice...

But recently--and belatedly-- it has occured to me that the ONLY influence capable of positively changing things for the better is the very influence that makes change inevitable: demographics.

Once enough people don't have houses, they'll vote for politicians who'll promote housing and other vital development. Despite the pernicious influence of the various anti lobbies, sooner or later the numbers cannot stack up for them as a growing proportion of the population are denied owning their own house.

We'll know when the tipping point is near when, replete in a set of new clothes, "the planning class" presents itself forth to solve the problem, claiming, of course, that they always, you know..... knew that what was going on before was, you know, not right. Yes, definitely, not right. We always knew that. But, you know, like, ....it was nothing to do with us, guv. Honest. Now then, is there perhaps a tiny corner of your table we could sit at, you know, just for a little bit? After all, we're trained, qualified and experienced. We know what to do. So, shall we start then?

The demographic trend is clear. How long it will take to have effect and what that effect will prove be is less clear.

The comment left by Mark P

The comment left by Mark P (Sat, 09/17/2011 - 20:53) exemplifies the snobbish disdain that bien-pensant types like him feel towards the rest of us.

How stupid we are to want houses! I can't help feeling that when Mark P dismisses these as "wasteful and ugly", he's thinking of their inhabitants as much as their design.

How much better it would be if the British - no, sorry, the English - could be forced into apartments. Of course, they would also have to educated in the merits of "public greenery", so that they could understand - as Mark P, being a lot cleverer than them, already does - that "the neighbours" are not "right up against them" (even when they're just a few inches away in the adjoining apartments).

An interesting piece of

An interesting piece of analysis. You're quite right, of course, the net effect of planning regulations is to pen the middle classes into the 21st Century equivalents of the Warsaw ghetto. The curiosity is that all the people waxing lyrical about the countryside and how it must be preserved, live in the ghetto too and know bugger all about the countryside.

Possibly the most unspoilt county in England is Cornwall and it's no coincidence that it's also the poorest by a long shot. Given some decent transport infrastructure and a few factories, it would advance out of the level of 19th century prosperity, but that's never going to happen. It must stay "unspoilt".

The green mind believes in a stasis that has never existed. Change is bad unless it's retrograde in terms of industrialisation. In a larger sense, I touched on it in a piece but you've nailed it from the socio-economic front, with the added spin of our betters keeping the great unwashed contained.

http://thepointman.wordpress.com/2011/02/25/the-steady-state-environment...

Pointman

You know who needs the burbs?

You know who needs the burbs? Kids till their mid-teens. That's a lot of humanity.

Thanks, Martin - and well

Thanks, Martin - and well said!

You might laugh but the trend

You might laugh but the trend in Australia is for the same thing. Obviously trailing a long way behind the UK in planning restrictions, but catching up fast. The average house block size has shrunk by half in the last 50 years. New developments have a mandated density size so medium density housing must be included in every plan.

The reasons given are the same : lack of available space. In the most sparsely populated continent on Earth.

The real reasons are complex : the governments hate spending money to send roads, water and power out to futher areas with less people, the large developers who sit on massive plots of land purposely drip-feed supply to create the illusion of a shortage, and meddling planners and NIMBYS everywhere who, now that they have their 1/4 acre block with a nice house, want to make sure that nobody else gets one. Finally the price of housing is such a political hot potato that nobody in politics wants to touch it, for fear of driving up or down the price of housing. You can't drive the prices up, because that means new home buyers miss out. You can't drive the prices down, for fear of electoral oblivion from the 70%+ of people who own or mortgage their own houses.

As a result of these (and other insane policies) Australian housing is now amongst the most expensive in the world. In a country where a 20 minute drive out of any city or town will provide you with endless empty countryside.

It is utter, utter madness that in the country with more open space and natural resources than any other, that housing is even remotely an issue. But such is the way of the central planners, or the people who can't stand individual choice, such as 'Mark P' above. Mark - so the British like to have a Garden. Let them have their gardens. If you want French villages, move to France. They aren't wrong, it's just their individual choice.

Part of the problem is that

Part of the problem is that the British will not live in apartments. So suburbanisation means every square inch is houses.

Even in rural France they live in large apartment blocks, giving a spacious feel to the area, rather than miles of flat housing. Each is surrounded by public greenery, so the residents don't feel like the neighbours are right up against them. It's how the Italians are too: even when in houses they don't have gardens and a packed tightly. And their suburbs have apartment buildings.

If the British, and specifically the English, could be persuaded to live in small pockets of high density then they could have the effect the French have: villages in a rural setting.

But the English will insist on every person having a separate house in a tiny garden, which is the most wasteful and ugly use of the land.

(By apartment buildings I do not mean great big tower blocks. I mean owner-occupied dwellings where six or eight dwellings are put into one building. With decent floor space and balconies. It's what the Europeans live in, and the British won't.)

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