Drawbridge Society

The Urban Task Force will keep the poor where they belong

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 24th June 1999.

The Montevetro Tower, on the banks of the Thames in Battersea, contains some of the most expensive apartments in Britain. The top penthouse suite costs £4.5 million. When the first residents arrive, in July, they will enjoy one of best views any building in London affords. They can play tennis on the all weather court, relax in the sauna and order theatre tickets, limousines and even maids through the porter’s lodge. Best of all, they don’t have to share any of these luxuries with their neighbours: a security barrier at the entrance to the grounds ensures that the hoi polloi in the council estates across the road will stay where they belong.

This is, in other words, the antithesis of the development the government’s Urban Task Force wants to promote. On Tuesday it publishes its report on the decline of British cities and the measures needed to reverse it. It’s not hard to guess what it will contain. Urban development, its interim statement suggested, should “encourage social cohesion, to prevent growing concentrations of excluded or marginalised urban communities”. The task force’s chairman is Richard Rogers. He is also the head of the practice which designed the Montevetro Tower.

To be fair to Lord Rogers, he is a little embarrassed about his sumptuous scheme. The problem, he argues, correctly, is that the absence of effective regulation forces developers like himself to put forward only the most lucrative schemes. Lord Rogers unquestionably means well, but I fear that his report will do little to tackle the monumental problems represented by the tower he has built on the Thames.

In no respect are the British less equal than in their access to development. Around 150,000 people are, by the strictest definition, homeless. Every year, about 95,000 new affordable homes are needed, and fewer than 30,000 get built. Yet every city bristles with new office blocks, superstores and executive estates. While parks and community centres deteriorate, new leisure facilities for those who can afford to pay are springing up all over Britain. Our cities are becoming the exclusive province of the rich.

Local authorities can do very little about this. The planning system still prevents them from insisting that the needs of the poor are met first. They designate land for housing in the hope that it will help the homeless, only to see it used to build 5-bedroomed mansions.

The task force’s likely recommendations will help make our cities feel a little more public. It will suggest that central and local government acquire greater powers to purchase and assemble land. It will advocate an increase in urban densities, and, the interim report suggests, help attract “a good mix of people back into our urban heartlands”: which seems to mean encouraging the middle classes to move into the inner cities. It will encourage walking, cycling and public transport. But these prescriptions, sensible as they are, will dislodge only a few of the bricks walling out the poor.

Bringing the middle classes back into the impoverished parts of our cities will doubtless help to boost the social cohesion the Urban Task Force advocates. But it has, so far, made no unequivocal commitment to seek to bring impoverished people into middle class areas. Drawbridged palaces like the Montevetro Tower are just as divisive as the “benefit ghettos” Lord Rogers laments.

Moreover, if the government succeeds in pulling richer people back into the cities, AND in increasing urban densities, the price of urban land – and hence housing – will climb still further, ensuring that those at the bottom of the pile become even more excluded than they are already. And if these measures boost the speculative land market, then more of London’s properties are likely to be sold as second homes and investments; especially as the council tax payable on second homes is still only half that levied on houses inhabited all through the year. There could scarcely be a greater source of injustice in Britain than that tens of thousands should have no roof, while others have two.

Our cities need a planning system which can discriminate between expensive and affordable housing. They need firmer constraints on the uses for which land can be sold: these are the only realistic means of holding down its speculative value. They need a far steeper council tax gradient, to make the construction of expensive housing less attractive, with punitive rates for second homes. They need devolution to local government and devolution FROM local government: more responsibility for the development of urban areas should be placed in the hands of the community.

I still harbour faint hopes that the Urban Task Force might put forward some of these recommendations. But I’d be more inclined to believe it if the Montevetro Tower had been designed to welcome its neighbours.