Ed West

We need a Campaign to Protect Urban England

We need a Campaign to Protect Urban England
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If a political subject is inconvenient to both Left and Right then the chances are that it won’t get addressed, however serious the problem. And so it has been with house-building; we have a desperate need for more homes in this country, but the Tories don’t want to discuss it because the obvious solution is to build more homes in Tory areas where the locals oppose it; Labour don’t like to because the subject of immigration upsets them.

More generally both globalist Left and Right, represented by a spectrum encompassing the Economist, Financial Times, City AM, the Times and Guardian, like the idea of an economic model which depends on continual population growth through immigration. Where this ends I don’t know.

The Right in particular do not seem to appreciate that housing is not simply another manufactured good that can be mass produced, but is to some extent a zero-sum game. There are only a limited number of homes available in good locations, and increasing the number of dwellings in any area will, at some point, reduce the quality of life there. So what if central London has been sold off to the Chinese and former family houses in the suburbs are now occupied by 27 Romanians in Dickensian conditions? You can just build a house in Bedfordshire and commute 5 hours a day!

That being said, most of London is pretty low density, and so George Osborne’s decision to allow Londoners to build up seems to me a pretty sensible half-solution, even if this may adversely affect me (some people are building a house behind us, which not everyone in our building is happy about). As I’ve written before, the least worst solution is to build up in London, and this isn’t just to avoid alienating the shire Tories.

There is a pretty strong argument that compact cities bring psychological benefits, too. As Robert Putnam noted in Bowling Alone, ‘sprawl disrupts community “boundedness”… More than three decades ago, when (we now know in retrospect) civic engagement was at full flood, political scientists Sidney Verba and Norman Nie showed that residents of “well-defined and bounded” communities were much more likely to be involved in local affairs. In fact, Verba and Nie found commuting itself to be a powerful negative influence on participation.’ Putnam noted a 'sprawl civil penalty' of roughly 20 per cent on most measures of community involvement.

Being part of that smallish demographic - conservative urbanophiles - I certainly prefer cities. But while building up is good in itself, what is needed is a Campaign to Protect Urban England, to lobby for high-density, beautiful architecture, proper squares, well-maintained parks and civilised living.

When I say ‘beautiful’ architecture, I should point out that I mean Gothic, Classical, Georgian and Victorian, my tastes being entirely reactionary on this matter, but then I’ve noticed that modern architects all tend to live in Georgian or Victorian homes, and I tend to pay attention to people’s revealed preferences.

Even though British architecture is nothing like as bad as the 1950s and 1960s, we still can never get it quite right. Modern interiors tend to be fantastic, King’s Cross and St Pancras being great examples, but take a look outside those stations and the vast expanse of space to the north that was recently freed up. They could have turned it into beautiful squares and piazzas to welcome people arriving from the continent; instead much of it looks like generic 1980s office blocks. What a wasted opportunity. As Edmund Burke noted, ‘to make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely’.

There’s an old joke that in heaven the bankers are all Swiss, the cooks are French and the mechanics are all German, but in Hell the bankers are Italian (or Greek, if it was made today). The town planners would certainly be English.