Climax City

Random writing on cities

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Should we loosen our green belts?

On 13th November 2013, I took part in a debate organised by Liverpool University in its ‘Policy Provocations’ series. The question was should we loosen our green belts? This is the text of my initial five minute statement….

Back in 1998 URBED wrote a report for Friends of the Earth. It was published exactly a hundred years after Ebenezer Howard published the first edition of his book. This was later to be republished as ‘Garden Cities of Tomorrow’ but the first edition had a more radical title; ‘Tomorrow: A peaceful path to real reform’. A combination of hubris and cheek caused us to call our report Tomorrow: A peaceful path to urban reform, something that really annoyed the Town and Country Planning Association.

However what upset them more was the subtitle – The feasibility of accommodating 75% of new homes in urban areas’. At the time the TCPA were not alone in believing that ‘forcing’ people to live in cities almost amounted to a breach of their human rights. Government policy at the time was that 60% of new homes should be built on brownfield land within urban areas (a target that had almost been met when we were working on our report). We forget that this policy was introduced by a Conservative Minister, John Selwyn-Gummer and opposed by his then Labour shadow Nick Raynsford. Labour were worried about housing being foisted on ‘their’ people in cities leading to town cramming – a response that may have made some sense when viewed from inner London but made none whatsoever in cities like Liverpool that had lost half of its population and was suffering terribly as a consequence.

It will come as no surprise to hear that our report for FoE did find that it was possible to accommodate 75% of housing growth in urban areas. Indeed soon after we finished it we got a call from Government to help them write a methodology based on our research to allow local authorities to measure the capacity of their urban areas.

Ten years later we looked again at the figures and found that in 2007, the year before the credit crunch, the percentage of housing built in urban areas had in fact exceeded 75% while the density of new housing had increased from 23 to 43 units per hectare. What is more, the capacity of urban areas to absorb new housing, far from being used up as had been predicted, seemed almost to be a renewable resource. For every acre brownfield land developed another had been created. If people say this evening that there is not capacity within Liverpool to built the homes it needs they are wrong. Having been written off as radicals and extremists at the time of the Tomorrow report we felt vindicated.

There is however a ‘but’. While housing output rose through the 2000s peaking at just below 220,000 homes in 2007 this was still less than the country needed. What is more, in that year for the first time the number of apartments built exceeded the number of homes. In many respects this was a good thing and heralded an age of urban living that has transformed our city centres. However it also had a dark side as crap, buy-to-let units were built as investments and never actually to be lived-in.  Policy had effectively choked-off Greenfield housing, forcing housebuilders into the uncertain territory of urban renewal, public private partnership and brownfield land – which they weren’t comfortable with, was more difficult and made less profit. So they focussed their efforts on city centre apartments contributing to the housing bubble. It is therefore no surprise that the crash in the apartment market has seen the number of new homes plummet to under 120,000 last year.

We need to do something about this and the easy option is to loosen the green belt. Give housebuilders what they want, unleash the constraints, and housing numbers will rise. However before we do that let us think for a moment.  The impact of the policies of the 2000s on cities like Liverpool has been transformative. There remains much to be done, but the city is far more lively, busy and successful that it was when all of its new housing was being built in its far-flung suburbs. A radical loosening of green belt policy puts all of this at risk. We will need to consider the planned development of greenfield land, (even our radical Tomorrow report conceded this) but this needs to happen alongside moves to bring back the apartment market in a more considered way and to maintain levels of brownfield building within cities.

When we were working on the Tomorrow report we had arguments with Friends of the Earth about the loss of countryside. To us it wasn’t the main issue. Only around 11% of England’s land area is urbanised and much of the land on the periphery of cities is pretty poor quality. Our concern about loosening the greenbelt is its impact on cities and their sustainability. Allow cities to sprawl and their urban cores will decline, allow this to go unchecked and you risk ending up like Detroit. You risk ending up with a car dependent society, based in sole-less suburbs much as we did at the end of the 1980s. My fear is that the careful balancing act required is beyond policy-makers and that a knee-jerk response to the housing numbers risks undermine the renaissance of our cities.

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The Urban Renaissance Happened – its official!

In the last couple of months census data has been published in the US and UK that provides evidence that the urban renaissance really did happen in the 2000s, as we predicted it would!

In July William H Frey from the Brookings Institute published his analysis of US census figures to show that between 2001 and 2011 US cities grew by 1.1% compared to their suburbs which grew by just 0.9%. Not startling figures – I hear you say – but this is after-all the US, the country of endless urban sprawl. It is in fact the first time that cities have outstripped their suburbs since the 1920s and it happened in 33 of the US’s 51 metropolitan areas.

Earlier this month the UK census figures were published for England and Wales so that we can compare and contrast. The extraordinary conclusion is that despite the credit crunch, the collapse of urban apartment markets and a deep recession, the cities in the UK’s six metropolitan areas (on the table above) grew by 10.6% between 2001 and 2001 compared to their suburbs that grew by just 5.6%. If that isn an urban renaissance I don’t know what is!

Our book contains the above table of city populations in the UK from 1911. It is a sorry tale of urban decline that shows the haemorrhaging of population from inner London, Manchester and Liverpool. The other cities do better, particularly Birmingham and Leeds – partly for economic reasons and partly because their boundaries are drawn to include most of their suburbs.

When we updated our book in 2009 we used mid census figures from 2006 to update this table. This was because they were the most up to date figures at the time. However there was apparently also a technical problem with the 2001 Census (that managed to lose 250,000 young men!). As well as being more reliable , the 2006 figures were also slightly more effective in backing up the central thesis of the book, namely that the turn of the millenium would herald an urban renaissance of a magnitude similar to the suburban explosion triggered by various factors at the beginning of the 20th Century. In the  2001 figures (shown on the above table) all the UK cities outside London were still shrinking. In the five years that followed to 2006 they appeared to have stabalised (plus or minus less than 1%), the exception being Manchester which had grown by 2.1%. We concluded tentatively that a century’s worth of urban decline and suburban sprawl had finally run its course and that while not yet growing, UK cities seemed to have turned a corner.

In this light the 2011 figures paint an extraordinary picture. They were heralded in the Manchester Evening News with the headline ‘Boom City’ prompted by the growth of the city’s population by very nearly 20% in a decade. Inner London had grown by 13%, Birmingham by 9%, Sheffield by 7% and Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle by 5-6%. Overall the 6 metropolitan areas in the table grew by 1.4 Million people a significant proportion of the 3.7M growth in the overall population of England and Wales.

As to why this has happened, commentators in the US have cautioned against pronouncing the end of the suburb. They suggest that the sub-prime crisis has been mainly a suburban problem. As people struggle to get mortgages they are putting off having families and staying in their urban apartments. However they also concede that it is a function of economic trends that have seen jobs growth in urban areas outstripping the suburbs as cities become economic drivers. This we predicted in our book. We argued that demographic change (in which 80% of new households did not have children), environmental issues (such as the rise in fuel prices) and social trends (people seeking different forms of community) would combine with economic factors to create a strong pull factor to urban areas. At the same time the closure of polluting industries and the regeneration of many inner city districts would make cities much more appealing. There were many who argued that this was wishful thinking, which of course it was, it is just that some times wishes come true.

The question now is whether these trends will continue at a time when the housing industry is retrenching and the UK government is toying with loosening the constraints on suburban development. In the book we concluded that the jury was still out on the robustness of the urban renaissance, the 2011 census figures give cause to be slightly more optimistic.