Tuesday, 5 January 2010

'the only serious corruption'

Excellent review by Ferdinand Mount of a new book on suburbia. I always find Mount worth reading - fabulously well-read and wise to boot.

He ends by making a point that I'm highly sympathetic to:
The planning laws in their present rigid state give rise to the only serious corruption in British politics: they enable landowners to capture enormous unearned profits; even in a time of prosperity such as we have just enjoyed, they cause crippling housing shortages. Above all, in an age when thousands of acres are no longer needed for agriculture, they prevent ordinary people from living where they would most like to live (and from fostering biodiversity in their back gardens). As the Treasury report on land supply pointed out in 2003, current policy is bringing about “an ever widening economic and social divide”.

Rory Stewart in his article in the Sunday Times, where he recounts a walk he made across the Penrith and Borders constituency of which he is the Tory PPC, highlights one local consequence of the peculiar disregard shown in present-day politics for this most fundamental of social problems:
I’ve found out that the government has spent three times as much on upgrading a mile-long footpath as on the entire affordable housing for the district.

What very peculiar priorities for a purportedly Labour Government! But then its capitulation to those who think tidy footpaths (presumably now ticking various boxes concerned with safety and accessibility) are a higher priority than having sufficient roofs to put over their erstwhile supporters' heads is evidenced all around us.

But rather than extending suburbia, which seems to be what Mount is suggesting, my suggestion (as outlined here) would be to add, say, a dozen or two dozen houses to every sizable village in the country. Any Government implementing such a policy might expect opposition from nimbies. But I really do think an injection of life - young couples and families - into a village should be good for everyone. For a start it would help keep pubs, shops and schools open. In any event, such rejectionists shouldn't assume they own their village. It existed long before they did and if it is to have a real life after them then it needs to change and adapt.

Funnily enough both Ferdinand Mount and Rory Stewart are Old Etonians. Truly are we strangers in a strange land: OE's pushing suburbia and social housing over the Labour Party's preference for upgraded footpaths in picturesque places. O tempora, o mores! as these two public school classicists might remark.


worm said...

good stuff - i'm actually hesitant to write a proper response or I might end up coming across as a swivel-eyed foaming-mouthed tory loon

word verification: Meessef -

Geordie for 'myself'; Polish English for 'big'

Francis Sedgemore said...

"…my suggestion (as outlined here) would be to add, say, a dozen or two dozen houses to every sizable village in the country"

I agree. As for opposition from nimbies, this could be neutralised if such buildings were integrated architecturally and environmentally into the exiting community space. What we don't want is blocks of soulless, Barrett-style houses on the edges of ancient villages.

malty said...

Worm, full translation is 'it's meself man', unless one happened to be educated at the RGS then it's 'pardon me, it's meself man'

Gaw, you highlight the problem, the originator of which was Willie the Conqueror, if I drive from my home to Newcastle, a distance of seventy miles I pass through land owned by..Earl Haig, Michael Ancrum, the Duke of Roxburgh, the Ministry of Defence, Lord Ridley, the duke of Northumberland, Freddie Shepherd and finally, Newcastle council.
In the intervening nine hundred and forty four years nothing has changed despite war, near revolution, pretendy socialist governments and the Guardian.

Happy new year.

Book launch year maybe?

Anonymous said...

For a start it would help keep pubs, shops and schools open.

Gaw, you may want to think about reversing that list before you go public with this campaign. They reflect my priorities too, but I don't tell the kids that.

Nothing, except possibly visceral anti-Americanism, reveals the elitest, la-la-land mentality of the left more than its dismissive attitude to suburbia. They will champion inner cities, villages, the countryside and even the enclaves of the rich ("at least they have taste!"), but the suburbs are always portrayed as a kind of aesthetic and spiritual dead zone that spawns small-mindedness, racism and, for those with a prurient bent, moral and sexual hypocrisy. The descriptions of suburban life they come up with bear no resemblance to anything I've ever experienced.

Perhaps my favourite chapter in this tale is when they tout the "community cohesion" and cultural diversity of inner-city areas, particularly immigrant areas,and propose all manner of expensive public interventions to preserve them, never acknowledging or even noticing that, as sure as God made the little green apples, children in these areas will flee to the suburbs at the first chance they get. Suburbs are where couples move to nest, and they are built on providing for kids in myriad ways, which is a clue to why rootless bien-pensants like Greene and Lawrence were so down on them. People want a safe, single-family home on a plot of land with plenty for their kids to do, and they will gladly make great sacrifices to obtain them. True, they can be a little on the homogenous side, but didn't the Good Lord make Ryanair and low cost package holidays so everybody can get in touch with their cultural heritage once a year by getting blotto on wine to the smell of donkey shit by the Mediterranean?

Sean said...

The only thing that would solve it is Land Value Tax, but no one is going to play with Dynamite.

And if you think more Suburbia is a good thing, take a trip to Suburbia hell down under, its endless and god awful dull, even with a pool. (stick to the coast roads when buying)

I think we are going around in circles here, you build more houses, you build more stuff to support the houses, more roads and more nasa sized distribution centres a 100 miles away, that pull in more people to work them, mainly people from abroad as our poor folks cant be arsed,and the rest will soon be in care homes for the elderly, which in turn requires more houses and more support infrastructure, unless the elderly die quicker, but not much chance with modern medicine.

Take a long look at the wind farms and along with our rolls Royce minded establishment, feel their post modern warmth and optimism.

As long as we have good people at the top, all will be well, as long as its not Ferdinand living as he does in the belief that corruption is just a cup cake at the great Britannia tea party.

Me, I will just keep smiling and cashing in as best I can, go with the trend.

malty said...

Indeed Peter, and may I say where would the fine old art of wife swapping be without the suburbs. Or John Lewis balance sheet.

Gaw said...

Worm: Or is it a Kiwi pronunciation of 'massive'? They seem to do extraordinary things to unsuspecting vowels.

Francis: Absolutely. In-fill rather than wholly green field. There are enough rather ghetto-ised council estates sitting glumly on the edge of villages.

Malty: Happy New Year! I like seeing that noble gentleman Frederick Shepherd being mentioned in that company, but not half as much as he would!

Let's hope so!

Peter: Very good point!

Re suburbia. I can see the point of it and I can imagine its attractions. But I can't see myself ever living there. Unless you count Islington as a suburb of London, which I don't think you would given your definition. We've got a plot here where we bring up children. I'm not sure for how long but certainly for the immediate future. We also manage to keep it real by having police horse shit wafted over to us most afternoons as they do their inner city rounds.

Sean: But isn't that all they have in Australia, suburbs? In which case, you're criticising a country rather than a mode of town planning. Though fair enough, of course.

Re your other point about over-development, the great thing about doing village in-fill developments is that you're re-using currently under-utilised local amenities.

Good luck as you go your merry way! You'll always have the Sound of Music to fall back on.

Anonymous said...


Sadly, as with much else that is good and beautiful, the traditional romantic practice of wife-swapping is being replaced by the souless vulgarity of the neighbourhood pool & barbeque orgy. As Gaw would say: O tempore, o mores.

Gaw said...

Ahem. Peter, I would say 'O tempora, o mores'. I may not know no Latin but I can transcribe correctly.

(I checked it on Google as I too thought it looked strange ending in an 'a': like something you'd exclaim in a sushi bar).

Anonymous said...

Gaw, I obviously made the mistake of translating directly from the ancient Hebrew. Either that or I previewed too casually. :-)

malty said...

Wailing wall Latin, often confusing, 'I convertiti stanno freschi appresso di me' as the Rabbi said to Sol Goldstien.

'Up yours' was the reply.

Sean said...

I will be down the west end at the end of March (dirty dancing as it happens, xmas present) so make sure you have cleared all that snow and ice by then, theres a good chap...good luck with the snow shovel I am sure there is a page on google on how to use it. If you run out of salt use cat litter!

Hey Skipper said...

Nothing, except possibly visceral anti-Americanism, reveals the elitest, la-la-land mentality of the left more than its dismissive attitude to suburbia.

Peter has hit the nail squarely on the head.

(The link is to an Economist review of "The Freedoms of Suburbia")

Some quotes:

For almost as long as suburbia has existed it has been derided. In the 1920s and 1930s two Bloomsbury intellectuals, Amabel and Clough Williams-Ellis, lamented the growth of the “octopus” (suburbia) and the “beast” (the bungalow). One doctor claimed to identify a condition that he called “suburban neurosis”. Most intransigent were the architects Peter and Alison Smithson, who created a good building for The Economist as well as some dismal high-rise housing for the London working class. “The argument that suburbs are what people want is invalid,” they declared.


Urban planners continue to believe they can restrain suburbia and improve upon it. American developers have been encouraged to build flats around tram stations; British limits on urban sprawl have led to the creation of ersatz villages. Both strains of “new urbanism” make heroic assumptions about people’s willingness to abandon their cars. Why, since, as Mr Barker shows, there is a perfectly good model already in existence? “For most people, most of the time, suburbia is as good as it gets,” he writes.

Hollywood, in particular, has been utterly antagonistic towards the notion of people living the way they want, rather than the way they should.

Gadjo Dilo said...

O tempora, o Calcutta! (I don't know what this means but I couldn't think of anything more intellient to say, sorry.)

worm said...

I've got absolutely nothing against the idea of suburbia, but why did it have to be created out of rubbish 1930's semis? couldn't they have made it out of georgian crescents?

Gaw said...

Skip: The fact that Hollywood is a suburb of the almost wholly suburban LA seems ironic in this context. Or hypocritical or paradoxical or something.

Gadjo: I wonder what the suburbs of Calcutta look like?

Worm: I guess the inspiration was Tudorbethan. I wonder why? Domestic classicism must have been unfashionable for some reason.

malty said...

The ultimate suburban dream was achieved in the nineteen sixties and seventies with the creation of StevenageHarlowMiltonkeynes, roundabouts with added houses and Dagenham accents

Gadjo Dilo said...

Gaw, they look absolutely appalling - I've been there.