When you watch or listen to a political debate programme, and you hear someone saying something like ‘I am not against all development, but…’ or ‘I don’t dispute the need for more housing, but…’, take it as a cue: you can now get up and grab a beer from the fridge without missing anything. You can safely assume that the next few minutes will consist of some lame, contrived excuses for nimbyism.
One of these excuses, which seems superficially plausible, goes something like this:
At some point in the distant future, it might become permissible to touch one or two blades of grass – but this has to be the absolute last resort. First, every other conceivable option has to be exhausted. These other options are then presented as almost endless. The country, the story goes, is full of derelict homes that could be brought back into use, brownfield land lying idle, and decaying neighbourhoods that could flourish once again if only they were given a little shove. Why despoil the countryside as long as so many opportunities for urban redevelopment remain?
It sounds superficially attractive because it appeals to our aversion against waste and inefficiency. We would not buy a new computer and throw away the old one just because it is running a little slowly. We would simply delete a few files and run a spyware scan. Presented in this way, it sounds as if ‘urban redevelopment’ meant no more than applying the basic principles of good housekeeping to the realm of city planning.
It seems, in fact, so obvious that one wonders where the catch is. If ‘urban renewal’ is such a no-brainer, why is it not already happening? Why would anyone build a new house, if all it takes is to wash the graffiti off an existing one, and clear out the spiders’ webs? There are also costs associated with connecting new settlements to existing ones, and these are broadly internalised through ‘Section 106’ agreements. Why would a developer want to incur them, if they can be so easily avoided?
Browse through nimby campaign materials, and you will look in vain for an explanation. You will be repeatedly assured about the allegedly limitless opportunities for urban regeneration, but only in the most unspecific of terms. Where are all those hidden treasures that just need a little dusting off?
There are occasional glimpses of greater clarity, though, and they are enough to give you us an idea about why the nimby movement prefers vagueness. When Simon Jenkins, the anti-housing tsar, talks about ‘urban renewal’, what he has in mind is shoving people into northern towns characterised by a declining population. So what is behind the brownfield site/urban renewal myth is a simple aggregation fallacy: a house is a house is a house. Who cares whether it is in London or in Sunderland?
The trouble is, once we accept the fallacy of treating the whole of the UK as one single housing market, it would be consistent to go a step further, and include the rest of Europe as well. One could then argue that as long as Spain is full of empty flats and houses, no square inch of the British greenbelt must be touched. Why don’t you move to Seseña, and stop blocking Simon Jenkins’ view?
There is no need to spell out the errors in this line of thinking. The geographical ‘rebalancing’ of the economy has been a policy objective for ages, and it is not for a lack of ambition or public expenditure that it has not had much effect. The reality is that the centres of economic gravity shift over time, and the drivers behind this are not well understood. What we do know is that settlement patterns tend to shift with them. We should allow them to shift, rather than fossilise a settlement pattern that evolved around the economic geography of the past. The UK’s settlement pattern of today should reflect where the people currently alive want to live, not where their ancestors wanted to live. This is why ‘renewing’ existing urban areas forever is not an answer. You don’t need to throw away your computer just because it is getting slow, but if you need to run a modern software programme, repairing your old Commodore Amiga yet another time won’t do.
That is why there is nothing wrong with building on greenbelt land in the south-east, even if there are still three empty homes in Barrow-in-Furness and two brownfield sites in Sunderland left. Given the abundance of undeveloped land, urban expansion is also easily reconcilable with protecting genuinely attractive parts of the countryside. We should abolish all green belts, and allow cities to expand according to where people want to live.