Old Labour for new cities

Anybody who believes that the age of the public sector in general, and of local government in particular, is over should read the newly published final report of the Urban Task Force, chaired by Lord Rogers of Riverside. Everything you have ever heard about Lord Rogers - Millennium Dome, River Cafe, Thames Wharf, Arts Council - may lead you to believe that he is new Labour through and through. Yet a year considering the state of our cities, touring Britain, Europe and the US, has led him inexorably to old Labour prescriptions: more planning, more public spending, more state intervention, more social housing. He does not himself tell the Barratt home dwellers, Mondeo drivers and Daily Mail readers to get stuffed. But if Lord Rogers' vision for our cities is to be realised, somebody will have to do so.

This is not a question of an elite architect looking down his nose at the aspirations of plain folk. It is a question of how an overcrowded island manages its most precious commodity: space. For most of the postwar era, Britain has allowed its planning system to be dictated by market forces, following the public demand for suburban living, away from the pollution, noise and dirt of the cities. The result - illustrated by a rather startling map in the Rogers Report - is that an area the size of five Kents has fallen victim to development and pollution since the 1960s. Writing in the NS on 21 June, Paul Barker argued that attempts to go against the social grain are invariably doomed, that if (for perfectly good reasons) people want to live in suburbs, you cannot and should not stop them. But there is an alternative view: that if you can create attractive inner-city environments (as several European and even a few English cities have done in patches) people will happily move into them. What went wrong in the 1960s was that the middle classes were allowed their suburban dreams while planners and architects shovelled the workers into the kind of housing they would never have dreamt of buying or renting for themselves.

The revival of the cities, though, must start with the recognition that local government - yes, boring, spendthrift, inefficient, rotten old local government - is central. As Rogers points out, public space, including streets, squares and parks, accounts for more than half of all the land in a city. How that land is used and managed, how people travel around a city, how services from policing to street cleaning are delivered - all these ought to be the subject of intense debate, which can take place only locally. Councils need what Rogers calls "a public realm strategy" - a bit of joined-up government if you like - because the public realm is of far greater significance in a dense urban area than it is in the countryside or the suburbs. Yet all the political movement of the past two decades has been against any such ideas: the downgrading of the public sector, the squeeze on council spending, the fragmentation of services through privatisation and competitive tendering, the concentration on narrow measures of efficiency and value. To take one small example, the Home Office advises police forces (quite correctly) that putting more officers on the beat does not reduce crime rates. Yet regular personal contact with familiar faces may be exactly what is needed to humanise the urban environment and make streets and parks feel safe and comfortable.

Lord Rogers pulls no punches. The kind of visionary local government that could give us better cities, he writes, "is a long way from where we are now, where decision-making powers still very much reside within national government departments, driven by service-based policies". We have, he says, "one of the most centralised systems of local government finance among western democracies". The UK "has under-invested in the maintenance and renewal of its urban estate". We shall have to "encroach on the desires and aspirations of individuals". Rogers wants us to "improve public transport out of all recognition", to reduce car parking places, to charge motorists more realistically "for the social and environmental costs which they are currently passing on to others". And so on and so on.

Here is a real challenge for new Labour, to show what it is made of. Despite the obligatory bromides about private sector partnership, there is no Third Way in this report. What Lord Rogers is proposing is a huge public sector project, complete with planning controls, regulation, new forms of taxation and up to £2 billion (the precise figure is disputed) of public expenditure. The Prime Minister could easily shelve it; equally, he could make it one of the centrepieces of his next election campaign. Place your bets.

This article first appeared in the 05 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, He makes us nice enough for export