Saturday, December 17, 2011

Martin Durkin: 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 Build It! 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 na├»ve 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.

Martin Durkin is a film director and documentary producer who blogs at

No comments: