It is a little known – and when known, usually ignored – fact that only about 13% of England’s land area is actually developed. (The figure is from Kate Barker’s 2006 report on Land Use Planning in England – summary here, with link to the report). There’s a quiet literature on those areas that are not deep countryside but not urban and developed either. Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley called them Edgelands in their book. Richard Mabey also wrote about them in The Unofficial Countryside.
Yet the firm impression of England (I’m referring to England, not Britain, specifically) is of a crowded, suburbanised, ugly place. Maybe the reason is the sheer ugliness of so many provincial towns and cities, so many made devastatingly horrible and unwalkable by post-war mis-planning, veneration of the car, rapacious property development using cheap design and cheaper materials. Owen Hatherley’s latest book, A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain, documents the ruining of British towns (Belfast, Edinburgh, Cumbernauld and Aberdeen are included). Even readers who don’t share his ranty left-wing politics will recognise the ugliness he bemoans in his descriptions of towns such as Plymouth, Bristol and Preston. Similarly, he describes the parts of touristy places such as Oxford and Brighton where the tourists don’t go. The story is the same, anti-human (but always pro-car) planning, cheap and shoddy materials, designs that are bland at best.
Hatherley’s previous book, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, had in its sights what he sees as the continuation by the New Labour governments of a veneration for markets and neglect of public space. Aesthetically, he railed against the jolly colours and frippery of so many new buildings of the 2000s. This latest book takes in the long sweep of architecture and town planning since the end of the second world war. The blurb claims the author looks to a hopeful future, but I must say I couldn’t spot these notes of optimism. This is a bleak, angry book.
The thing is, its descriptions of our ugly provincial townscapes, the dreadful quality of so much modern architecture, the horrible conditions in which so many people have to live – not to mention the high prices they pay and shortage of homes – are accurate. The first chapter here is titled: “Thames Gateway: One of the Dark Places of the Earth.” Yep.
Hatherley projects his politics on to what he sees, but anybody can recognise his descriptions of dreary shopping malls, multi-lane highways cutting through town centres, bland blocks of flats or hutch-like houses made of cheap materials. This is what we’ve done to our land in recent decades. So although the ugly sprawl is, by the numbers, not that extensive, it scars our spirit and helps sustain the dream of a lovely and verdant English countryside in the popular imagination.
Hatherley ends with the argument that the Occupy movement, evidently camped outside St Paul’s cathedral when he published this, might augur a new approach to urbanism and planning. That’s obviously sheer romanticism, although it’s true that Occupy might well be one of the more obvious signs of the ending of the generation-long grip of reductionist market philosophy on public policy. There are signs in many domains of a revival of concern for public space. But I’m a boring pragmatist: Kate Barker’s two reports from 2004 and 2006 were full of sensible recommendations, a few of which were acted on. We need her to update us on what to do next.