In place of strife

The Chosen City

Nicholas Schoon<em> Spon Press, 370pp, £18.99</em>

ISBN 0415258022

Future T

For more than three decades, successive governments have promised to transform our "degenerated" inner cities, most notably Margaret Thatcher on the night of her 1987 victory.

But what does urban regeneration mean? As Nicholas Schoon points out, in his engagingly written manifesto for a better urban life, the thrust of Thatcher's social policies resulted in counter-urbanisation or de-urbanisation, rather than reviving the inner cities. Urban regeneration is not about pumping a few hundred million pounds into schemes largely concerned with the bricks and mortar of cities, but transforming them into places where, as Schoon puts it, "people with choices" want to live.

Refurbishing or building new housing is useless on its own, as shown by the demolition, in central Newcastle, of an estate of housing-association houses barely a couple of years old. What is important is to adopt a raft of measures, which starts with a coherent planning policy that does not encourage a drift out of town, and extends to improving schools and transport. Essentially, although Schoon does not quite put it in such a way, it is about getting the middle classes to remain in the inner city.

In his thorough potted history, Schoon pins the blame for urban decline on anything from misguided planning to the rapacity of land-hungry private developers, but accepts that it has been accelerated by the simple fact that many people prefer to live in less dense suburbia, even if, to the outsider, that seems ineffably boring. He reserves his sharpest criticism, however, for the concept of the council estate: "The long-term goal should be to ensure that every such estate vanishes. They didn't work; they are not a decent, civilised way of housing poor people."

Schoon suggests replacing them with "mixed-use, high-density" developments of the kind that reflect what we most love about the most successful towns. It can be done. The population of central Manchester, for example, has increased twentyfold to 6,000 in the past six years, thanks to the realisation by clever developers that people - particularly the young - want to live centrally.

Schoon believes there should be a complete ban on developments on greenfield sites. Instead, there should be town extensions, using all that brownfield land that often sits a few blocks away from highly successful middle-class districts, along with some of the farmland adjacent to towns. How would it be paid for? Simple: the local council should capture the increased land value by buying the land at farmland prices, grant itself planning permission, provide basic services and sell the land on at development prices.

It is this ability to think out of the box that makes Schoon's ideas so interesting. On education, he suggests that parents with young children should receive a council tax rebate for sending them to poor-performing schools - which may then ensure that the schools fill up, therefore becoming, by definition, more successful. It may also attract into the area slightly better-off people. To further fill the pot of money going into regeneration, Schoon suggests that there should be a 10 per cent capital gains tax on house sales. It is one of the great untaxed sources of income and is a regressive con- cession. This, he says, would not only have the beneficial effect of providing extra money, but would damp down the rise in house prices, which pushes lower-income people out of the inner city.

The core message of The Chosen City is that good cities do not just happen by accident. They need to be planned, and the implications of that planning have to be thought through, because the inevitable side effect of allowing the sprawling suburbs to grow unchecked is inner-city decay. Schoon is not a natural polemicist; he can barely set out any suggestion before knocking it down or pointing to the opposing argument. But his book should be read by everyone from government ministers to those engaged in the task of urban regeneration.

Transport is one of the key determinants of any urban regeneration scheme. Here Schoon predictably, and rightly, argues that unrestrained expansion of car use is, quite simply, incompatible with the notion of making our cities more liveable.

Which brings us to Brian Richards, who, although short on polemic, is in his own way also trying to make better cities. His book offers persuasive analysis of existing transport best practice across the world. Much of this will be familiar to anyone with knowledge of, say, the huge buses of Curitiba in Brazil; the high proportion of cyclists in Copenhagen, encouraged by a deli- berate change in policy; or the extraordinary public transport system in Zurich, whose inhabitants each use the system 800 times every year, nearly five times the level of trips by Londoners.

These books remind us, and ought to be used to show Britain's politicians, that things can get better, if only there is the will.

Christian Wolmar is the author of Broken Rails: how privatisation wrecked Britain's railways (Aurum Press, £9.99)