Ditch the Dome

It’s a monumental folly

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 12th June 1997.

Five years ago, the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Manaus, capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, was falling apart. The roof was collapsing, the windows were broken, the staff were unpaid and the equipment moribund. In one of the most plague-prone regions on earth, the effective treatment of infectious diseases had come to an end.

The state government strode into action. Next door to the decaying old hulk, it cleared a new plot and poured £20 million – a substantial portion of the state budget – into an enormous new, shiny, domed building, made from the latest materials, which would, it claimed, cure many of the region’s ills. It was not, however, a replacement for the old hospital but a “Sambadromo” – a huge new stadium in which people could dance the samba. It was, quite rightly, condemned at home and abroad as a monumental waste of public money.

Today, Britain’s stock of affordable housing is falling apart. Every year, 90,000 new affordable homes are needed, while only around 40,000 get built. 154,000 British households are officially homeless. South-east London suffers particularly badly. Luckily, there is some derelict land available on which part of the problem can be solved. The government looks as if it is about to stride into action. It seems prepared to put a substantial portion of the state budget into an enormous new, shiny, domed building, made from the latest materials ….

The plan for the Millennium Dome, unveiled on Saturday and rescued from its rightful place in the dustbin by a cabinet committee on Tuesday, is a social and environmental disaster of which the state government of Amazonas would be proud. Quite aside from the use of huge quantities of polluting PVC, and the dome’s proposed demolition just two years after construction, the derelict land it is scheduled to expropriate has become one of our most precious resources.

The Town and Country Planning Association warns that urban development sites are now disappearing so fast that there is no hope of meeting the government’s aim of confining 60 per cent of all new housing to cities. Instead, new homes are being pushed into the countryside, far from people’s jobs, services, families and communities.

The decreasing availability of these sites is characteristically portrayed as inevitable, but only by those who choose not to see what is happening. Far from being used to meet the needs of the development-poor (the homeless and the dispossessed), land in cities is being swallowed up to supply luxuries to the development-rich – superstores, multiplexes, flashy new offices, exclusive executive flats and now our very own Millenniadromo. It is not hard to see why: the market in real estate is rigged.

Britain is divided into development zones – the limited areas in which houses or factories can be built – and agricultural zones: the much wider regions in which new construction is not permitted. Land in the development zones acquires, as a result, an artificial scarcity value. As planning controls in cities have been relaxed, the speculative price of this scarce land has risen still further. While real estate outside the development zone sells for a maximum of £2,500 an acre, along the river in London it fetches as much as £3 million.

As a result, developers could not contemplate building cheap housing, community centres or free recreation areas, even if they wanted to. No affordable housing scheme, however tightly packed, would be profitable on land costing £3m an acre. No one will invest in any but the most immediately lucrative (and unsustainable) means of celebrating the millennium at Greenwich.

Development zoning makes sense – it is a popular and effective means of protecting the countryside. What makes no sense is that the rigged market it nurtures should be allowed to behave as if it were a free market. Established by the planning system, it must surely also be restrained by the planning system. The best millennium present the government could give Britain would cost nothing, save billions and hurt only the tiny handful of people who have profitted so handsomely from our discomfiture.

Yesterday, John Prescott launched his gigantic new environment, transport and regional development ministry. He has promised a sustainable future for Britain. If he means what he says then his department’s first act must be to issue new planning guidance, insisting that basic social needs be met before urban land is used for luxury developments.

The immediate result would be a massive reduction in the value of development land, enabling local authorities to spread their newly-won capital receipts much further, and housing associations, government and community groups to start patching some of the vast holes in social provision left by the last administration. Without such restraint, development in Britain, just like development in Brazil, will continue to serve only the developers.