Don't turn Bradford into Barcelona

Richard Rogers, our most influential architect of urban regeneration, should find his vision in Brit

Despite the great contribution of Harvey Nichols to Leeds, British cities remain in crisis. From Birmingham to Newcastle, Liverpool to Bradford, our cities lack confidence.

Last month's desultory conference of Britain's big seven provincial cities - Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield - confirmed the trend. Since 1981, according to a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the country's 20 largest cities have lost more than 200,000 jobs, while the rest of Britain gained 1.7 million. Our major conurbations continue to display levels of social exclusion, poverty and unemployment well above European averages. A recent report on city competitiveness by academics in Cardiff showed that England's urban centres were performing badly on wealth creation, average earnings and jobs. Bristol was a solitary exception.

The government will shortly publish its urban white paper in an attempt to stem the suburban tide and renew civic life. Much of it will bear the imprint of the Labour peer and architect Richard Rogers, whose life quest is to turn every British city into an Amsterdam or Barcelona - stylish regional centres that have led the way in publicly funded civic aggrandisement.

Much of what he proposes is sensible and timely. Few could disagree with the need to develop more brownfield sites, increase living densities and improve urban amenities. The problem with the Rogers approach is that it is blinded by the light of Barcelona's success and takes too little account of Britain's instinctive civic strengths. Pump-priming cities with Moorish piazzas and Dutch "spaces" can go only so far, while the embedded corruption of 1980s Paris should stand as a clear warning of the danger of excessive municipal vanity.

Cities prosper not by copying imported schematic models, but by playing to their own historical strengths. Barcelona achieved this by pursuing, in the words of its former mayor, a "moderately nationalistic project as the Catalan capital". Not an option necessarily open to Sheffield. Today's policy-makers would do far better to learn some lessons in fostering civic pride from what one Victorian author termed "the age of great cities".

During the 19th century, Britain was home to the greatest civic renaissance in Europe. Across the country, from the gothic turrets of Manchester's town hall to the splendour of Birmingham's Chamberlain Place, cities resonated with civic pride. They enjoyed a vibrant civil society, with thousands of local clubs and institutes. They had strong political leadership, with dynamic mayors who went on to become national figures. And they were adorned with sumptuous town halls, churches, even prisons.

Rogers, rather than trying to emulate these successes, has bizarrely dismissed the Victorian city, "with its pollution, its slums and its short-term vision", for destroying "our confidence in the ability of the city to provide a framework for humane civic life". Contemporaries saw it rather differently: they regarded the Victorian city as a triumph of civilisation - symbols of a confident and prosperous society. The cities testified to the victory of commerce and manufacturing over the feudalism of agriculture. Their art and culture showed the supremacy of the urbane over "the boorish squirearchy" of the provinces. Yet it had not always been this way.

Conditions in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds in the early 19th century were indeed terrible. The young Friedrich Engels described with horror how Irish immigrants in Manchester lived "in ruinous cottages, behind broken windows, mended with oilskins, sprung doors, and rotten door-posts, or in dark, wet cellars, in measureless filth and stench". The River Irk was "narrow, coal-black, stinking, full of filth and garbage . . . and it gives forth a stench that is unbearable even on the bridge 50 feet above". The author Robert Southey found the noise of Birmingham "beyond description", while the filth was "sickening . . . it is active and moving, a living principle of mischief, which fills the whole atmosphere and penetrates everywhere".

Charles Dickens's description of Coketown (modelled on Preston) in Hard Times remains the most infamous account of Victorian urban squalor. He described it as a town of "red brick, or of brick which would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it"; it was a place "of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever"; and it had "a black canal, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye".

From these awful beginnings, the Victorians turned their cities into outstanding civic centres. Perhaps the most important factor behind the transformation was the spirit of voluntarism.

The urban elites of the 19th century believed passionately in joining associations and founding clubs. Friendly societies, voluntary societies and fraternities made up the rich tapestry of Victorian civic life. By 1850, there were more than 700 mechanics' institutes, literary institutes, athenaeums and mutual improvement societies commanding a combined membership of more than 120,000 people in Yorkshire and Lancashire alone.

By 1840, Manchester boasted its own Literary and Philosophical Society, Natural History Society, Royal Manchester Institute, Mechanics' Institute, New Mechanics' Institute, Statistical Society and Geological Society. Liverpool was equally well endowed, with its Lyceum, Academy of Art, Literary and Philosophical Society, Mechanics' Institute and Royal Institution.

Urban leaders then set about trying to rebuild the civic fabric. The newly rich middle classes hoped to rid themselves of their philistine, Gradgrind image by endowing pristine museums, galleries and town halls. Across Britain, spurred on by John Ruskin's descriptions of Venice and renewed interest in the Italian city republics, the Victorian merchant elites styled themselves as the new Medici. Just as the commercial wealth of the Renaissance city states had built the piazzas and cathedrals of Florence and Siena, so the industrialists of Manchester and Liverpool used their riches to beautify their cities.

In Manchester, warehouses went up in the Venetian palazzo style. The architect Thomas Worthington modelled one of his warehouses on the Doge's Palace in Venice. Churches, town halls and public squares all resembled the great city states of the Renaissance. Worthington described Manchester as "the Florence of the 19th century". The magazine Building News said of Manchester: "There has been nothing to equal it since the building of Venice."

One hundred years ago, any chance to erect a new civic edifice was welcomed across the political spectrum. In Leeds, the local paper campaigned for a new town hall, demanding that the city "leave an edifice which may tell the world that the people of Leeds have not had their taste utterly destroyed by factories and warehouses".

What they built remains one of the finest monuments to civic pride in Britain. When Queen Victoria opened the town hall in 1858, the local councillors hoped that Her Majesty would be pleased to see "a stirring and thriving seat of English industry embellished by an edifice not inferior to those stately piles which still attest to the ancient opulence of the great commercial cities of Italy and Flanders". In Liverpool, Bradford, Halifax and Birmingham, simi- lar monuments went up, funded not by rates, but by local subscriptions and donations.

Their civic pride drove Victorian citizens to support the local museum, gallery or orchestra. Every city strove to beat its old rival. The extravagance of Leeds Town Hall was the product of a nagging desire to outshine Bradford's St George's Hall.

Today, local businessmen seeking social advancement buy the local football or rugby team; the Victorian wealthy were more interested in preserving the civic environment. Social esteem came not from owning horses or footballers, but endowing a new hospital or buying a painting for the city. Just as a scion of the original Medici had patronised Raphael, the Victorian merchant princes brought forth the genius of the Pre-Raphaelites.

With the spirit of voluntarism and civic pride came a proper appreciation of local self-government. Victorians believed passionately that municipal autonomy was a birthright the British had enjoyed since the Saxon invasion. The Birmingham Daily Press celebrated the importance of England's provincial capitals: "On the other side of the Channel, Paris is France, but no such rule applies with us." In Britain, "Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and other towns must be asked their opinion" before any decisions were taken.

Leading businessmen, lawyers, doctors and dons, as well as the usual shopkeepers and brewers, fought keenly contested borough seats. Indeed, in l860s Birmingham, it was the height of respectability to bear civic office. And with their power, the councillors transformed Birmingham into one of the most elegant and prosperous cities in Europe. Under the direction of its brilliant mayor, the Nonconformist businessman Joseph Chamberlain, the city municipalised its gas and water supply and, with the proceeds, built new art galleries and museums, cleaned the slums and redeveloped the city centre.

Each council vied to create the most beautiful and prosperous city. They talked up their achievements, celebrated their local worthies and developed innovative ways of generating funds. By contrast, today's councils compete vicariously to highlight their poverty, unemployment or social exclusion, in the hope of more money from central government.

If Britain's cities want to return to their former glory, they should not be in the business of seeking larger grants or following "moderately nationalistic" plans. They should be trying to rebuild civic pride from the ground up. That means local businessmen and civic leaders joining the council; more elected mayors for major cities; an end to rate-capping; and for central government to return power back to the cities, allowing local people to make local decisions. Lottery money should no longer be distributed from on high to the regions, but given to local authorities to do with as they wish. The design of cities should be taken out of the hands of anonymous district planners and opened up to popular competitions among architects.

The Treasury needs to provide proper tax breaks for local charities and civic associations to rekindle a spirit of voluntarism. And local businesses should be allowed to offset their local rates against donations to museums, parks and galleries.

We should not be looking to turn Bradford into Barcelona, but instead, renewing Britain's indigenous spirit of civic pride - a spirit that prompted the Economist of 1843 to describe Victorian cities as "great wonders and great blessings; the home of advancing civilisation, the abodes of genius, and the centres of all the knowledge, the arts, and the science of our race".

Dr Tristram Hunt is a historian of the Victorian city