Look around in anger

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 

in their book. Richard Mabey also wrote about them in

[amazon_image id=”0224089021″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness[/amazon_image]

[amazon_image id=”0956254551″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Unofficial Countryside[/amazon_image]

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,

, 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.

[amazon_image id=”1781680752″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain[/amazon_image]

Hatherley’s previous book,

, 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.


12 thoughts on “Look around in anger

  1. Long ago the “public spaces” you mention were policed and in parks etc. it was usual to have park attendants, often in uniform and able to summon up immediate local police help in the event of real trouble. All gone and left open to the gangs and anti-social groups. These need not be large in number to blight an area. Think “The Tragedy Of The Commons”, it does not take many who can do what they want when they want to wreck a common asset.

  2. Does it make sense to complain that:

    1. houses are made too cheaply
    2. houses have spread out too much (sprawl)
    3. houses are too expensive

    don’t improvements regarding 1 and 2 imply worsening 3?

    • (1) is about cost of building materials used (cheap and tacky) in new houses, while (3) is about market price for all houses, reflecting also capitalised land value and high because of the difficulty of getting planning permission. Depending on the part of the country, having planning permission for residential development increases the land value many, many times over. (There is of course a nice profit margin in the middle.)

      Finally, (2) is a myth, although widely-believed: a relatively low proportion of England’s land area is built up.

  3. I’m not sure markets are the perpetrators here. Surely the period in which much of the ugliness was built is in an era when the State has never had more control over land use. Planning regulation drive up land values, leaving less money to spend on what you put on top of the land. Some loosening of planning mixed with land value taxation should ease this problem.

    As to how to create beautiful towns, I have no answers. England is dotted with picture-postcard villages, towns and cities (usually very old). I’ve never understood how we seemed to have regressed in this regard, whilst progressing in many other areas of human endeavour.

    • To be fair to Hatherley, he blames both the private and public sector. I think he has a romantic ideal of municipal socialism with artistic confidence – an ideal that very few if any British towns live up to. Land value taxation is looking increasingly appealing in a number of ways, isn’t it?

  4. Hathersley is such an entertaining and insightful writer, I can forgive him the rants, too. He is particularly scathing on the results of Florida’s urbanism, which gave us what Demos called ‘Boho Britain’ regeneration.

    “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”

    I’m not sure I buy that, Diane. If reductionist market philosophy had such an iron grip on public policy, the banks would not have been bailed out. They were, and it socialised the cost of their fecklessness – a very “un-market” solution. The energy market is another example of increasing collectivism, not liberalism (neo- or otherwise).

    I was in New York in the autumn (should I say Fall?) of 2008 when the Emergency Economic Stabilization Bill was tabled. There was, to the astonishment of DC and the press, an enormous public push back against the Bill from across the spectrum. Both the Left and the classical liberal/libertarian discovered they had common ethical ground in opposing the bailout. Within a few days, the Bill grew three pages to 700, before it was finally passed.

    Isn’t it from such fascinating new alliances that the political landscape is reshaped in the long term – rather than the romantic 60s protest cliche of Occupy? Ultimately Occupy was unable to express much more than a rage against the concentration of wealth. It failed to realise that Wall Street was not acting liberally, but illiberally, very much like a state industry.

    In form and message, Occupy missed the moment.

    • I don’t agree with Occupy, but the protests do seem to be one sign of changing public attitudes. For all the evidence of corporate welfare, I really don’t think ‘markets’ have become newly popular either. Of course, many people think ‘markets’ and ‘business’ are equivalent.

      • Capitalism disguised its regeneration by adopting language such as “sustainability” and “corporate social responsibility”, it no longer seeks to push back the state, but form a profitable compact with it. Risk-reduction rather than risk-taking.

        People may not spend much time thinking about market dynamics – but they certainly know a stitch-up when they see one. With the bank bail outs, in energy policy (which influences industrial policy), and now digital policy, the state strongly intervened in the market, suspending market disciplines and picking winners. These are pretty major public policy areas – they affect us all.

        I don’t disagree that market liberalism blew through the Academy in the 1980s, as it did through many policy areas. What puzzles me his why the academics insist that liberalism today is all powerful, all pervasive, and “neoliberalism” is the dominant narrative. The reality is more subtle, and quite different. Their obsession with markets borders on a conspiracy theory.

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