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Mr. Town meets Mr. Country

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  • The Land Is Ours
    Mr. Town meets Mr. Country Richard Rogers & John Jackson From BSE to foot & mouth, from hunting to the Countryside Alliance, from Maff to Defra - out of crisis
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 1, 2001
      Mr. Town meets Mr. Country
      Richard Rogers & John Jackson
      From BSE to foot & mouth, from hunting to the Countryside Alliance, from
      Maff to Defra - out of crisis the countryside has moved to the top of the
      political agenda. But where is the Urban Alliance? Are the cities losing
      their way? And how can the fractured relationship of the last decade be
      healed in the next? (v. long)
      The rural-urban divide defines a vital part of society everywhere. Here,
      two representatives of the British experience meet for the first time and
      try to establish their common ground. They share a despair at government
      policy and the lack of an overall approach, which has taken an especially
      damaging form in England in the course of the twentieth century. They both
      feel that the government is all too unlikely to alter this.
      Richard Rogers, a renowned international architect and Labour peer, headed
      the Labour government’s Urban Task Force. John Jackson is a leading
      businessman who chairs the Countryside Alliance. Roger Scruton and Ken
      Worpole are the editors of the City and Country topic of openDemocracy
      Whether in the form of poetry, myth, thinking, policy or planning law the
      editors of openDemocracy seek a unified, environmentally realistic and
      humane approach to the urban-rural divide, which so profoundly touches the
      nature of the human species around the world. You are welcome to contribute
      your experience and perspectives and add your questions to the discussion.
      openDemocracy The 1947 Town and Country Planning Act of the post-war
      Labour government separated cities and countryside from the point of view
      of planning. Now this Labour government has published separate white papers
      on urban and rural policy, and been re-elected. What are your views of this
      legacy and the prospect it holds out?
      Richard Rogers Overall, we are facing one crisis. We’re seeing the
      countryside eroded and the cities fragmenting. These two processes are
      sides of a single process: as the cities fragment, people move out, erode
      the countryside, and hollow out urban areas even more. If we don’t improve
      the quality of our cities where the vast majority of people live, then we
      will all end up having to live in a suburban sprawl.
      People move out primarily from the towns and cities that work least well.
      Fragmentation follows the need to escape. East Manchester had nearly
      100,000 people living there just after the war. It now has only 15-20,000
      people. Four out of every five houses are boarded up or destroyed. There is
      no civic society left. Anyone still there who can move out, will do so.
      Having two separate white papers instead of one was forced on John Prescott
      at the Department of the Environment. I know that originally he wanted to
      have a single one for both countryside and city. That is what I argued for.
      But the situation, the legacy if you will, still encourages the attitude
      that people must ‘defend’ one or the other: John Jackson the countryside;
      myself cities. This polarisation does not address the situation.
      At the same time, internationally, there is a tremendous amount of
      agreement about the overall principles of sustainable development. Such as
      the need to use brownfield land as a primary form of any part of
      development, the need to build mixed-use into the city, making it more
      compact, better connected, more sustainable in terms of ecology, well
      managed and governed.
      But the forces which drive people from the cities have not abated. These
      are not just poverty or a poor physical environment, but also the way that
      we subsidise roads and cars. We don’t cost in the pollution, or the 3,600
      killed and over 300,000 injured every year on the roads in the UK, and what
      they cost the health services. We encourage people to look after
      themselves, rather than care for civil society and have civic pride.
      John Jackson Broadly, I agree. When I looked at the two white papers, the
      first thing I noticed was that the one on towns says the government’s aim
      is to deliver an “Urban Renaissance”, while the one on the countryside says
      its aim is “A Fair Deal for Rural England”. (Laughter) Why on earth can’t
      we have a Rural Renaissance? More seriously, both documents talk about the
      necessity for power to be devolved back to those communities. What they
      don’t talk about is how the central power can organise itself to have any
      meaningful relationship with communities.
      My target is central government. I personally believe that we’re trying to
      run a 21st century Britain with a system which just isn’t working starting
      with the two party set-up, which will survive last week’s election,
      whatever people say, until there is proportional representation. We can
      have good quality policy frameworks until the moon turns blue nothing
      lasting will actually happen until we can get a sufficient degree of power
      into local communities, whether they’re in the cities or the countryside.
      People must be able to participate in the creation of policy as well its
      What distinguishes the countryside from towns and cities is that the
      countryside is predominantly based on communities with strong feelings
      about their identities. They have their characteristics which are driven
      largely by local circumstances: usually the way in which land is used
      (farming, forestry etc), form of agriculture which the geography or
      topography has imposed. Getting a sense of community, where people relate
      to a particular bit of urban geography without a shared local economy or
      other local interest, is very difficult.
      I’ve lived as much in cities as I have in the countryside. If they are
      rooted in ethnic or religious affiliations, communities in cities can
      flourish. Otherwise, it is a lot easier to lie dead and unnoticed for three
      months in your flat in the city, than it ever would be in any rural
      community. As wealth increases, I think you’re going to find the continual
      pressure of people moving that Richard Rogers describes. Not necessarily
      consciously moving towards a community, but certainly moving away from a
      lack of one. The process is driven by wealth as well as poverty.
      Social and physical exclusion
      RR I agree, we are saying similar things. In terms of the anatomy of the
      city, the city is a series of villages and towns put together. The
      neighbourhood community is the beginning, the doorstep if you like. You
      need to have a sense that the town is a place where people come to meet
      each other friends or strangers. This is a principle for any form of urban
      settlement. The variations are in scale and density, transportation systems
      and pollution.
      In cities or villages that work well, neighbourhoods are strong. The reason
      that people want to live in, say, London’s Notting Hill Gate is that you’ve
      got a genuinely mixed community, good parks, some good markets, housing for
      the less well off, housing for the rich. I’m a traditionalist in this sense
      of looking for the whole. The mix of forms lets people get together. If it
      does not, everything fragments.
      The Labour government is extremely conscious of and is doing a lot of work
      on social exclusion. But I don’t think it’s made the jump linking the
      social and physical. This lies at the root of the problem. There is still a
      feeling that if we pump money into improving schools, then it will make a
      neighbourhood. And I keep on saying, “If you can’t walk to school you
      haven’t got a community.” Whereas in 1971, eighty per cent of British
      children between the ages of six and eleven would walk, or go with their
      parents walking to school, it’s now ten per cent. That’s the end of
      communities across society.
      oD Today, if you live in the countryside it can be illegal to let your
      children walk to school, because you are not permitted to allow a child to
      go unaccompanied down a country lane.
      JJ I too remain to be convinced that Labour understands social exclusion,
      especially in rural areas. Following the Countryside March in 1998, I tried
      to persuade the government to consider what had brought such huge numbers
      to London. Eventually, I found that my letter had been passed to the Social
      Exclusion Unit. Another six weeks passed, so I phoned them. They then wrote
      and said that it was very interesting, and I could expect to hear more from
      them I heard absolutely nothing at all.
      Labour’s election manifesto promises a Department for Rural Affairs. If
      this replaces not just the old Ministry for Agriculture, Farming and
      Fisheries but more important its mentality, then perhaps we will see a
      shift in the whole approach of government policy-making.
      RR I’m very jealous of the fact that there is a Countryside Alliance. I
      feel that there should be a similar alliance of city dwellers. All the
      jokes about people in green wellies… actually it’s about people who are
      linked by something. I’m conscious that we don’t have that kind of
      expression of city identity and interests. I have no idea what the answer
      is. But I think it is a critical problem.
      I was brought in to head the Urban Task Force with a fanfare, but having
      bought the glamour, where is the substance? On the other hand, rural
      affairs now command a far longer and more articulated expression of policy
      commitments in the Labour party’s election manifesto. You may have been
      outsiders but you have created an influential independent force. The advice
      of the Urban Task Force may have been far-sighted, but short-term and
      bureaucratic interests easily prevail unless there is a force outside,
      influencing government. I think you have been more effective. I sometimes
      feel as if the wind has been taken out of my sails.
      JJ I would have swapped with you in one respect. What I really enjoyed in
      the urban white paper was the annex of the recommendations from your Urban
      Task Force. This was a serious attempt to say to policy makers, “If you
      want a policy framework, these are the sorts of things you should bear in
      mind.” We badly need a similar framework for the countryside. All we got
      from Labour in their first term were people who wanted to be ‘fair’ to it.
      You inspired us to produce our own detailed framework for a rural strategy.
      The spark that set the countryside ablaze
      oD We can’t consider the Countryside Alliance without considering the
      question of hunting that precipitated it.
      RR I abstained on the vote. My position is that there is no reason for it
      to be in Parliament.There is only time for about thirty pieces of
      legislation to go through a year. There are very many more critical
      problems we should be tackling than whether some people should or shouldn’t
      hunt foxes.
      I understand very little about fox hunting. I have a certain dislike of the
      idea. Having said that, I am very conscious that we’re meddling in
      something that other people enjoy greatly, and which means a lot to them.
      It’s an issue which divides my family. Coming back from Barcelona recently
      we argued over bull fighting. For many in Spain, bull fighting is a great
      cultural tradition, even an art, which brings people together as a community.
      JJ I’ve never hunted in my life and I never will. For me, the question is
      whether people should be able to decide for themselves whether to hunt or
      not. It’s a question of liberty. There’s not the slightest doubt that the
      threat to hunting was the spark that set the countryside ablaze. But what
      we have to ask ourselves is: why was the countryside tinder dry?
      There is a deep concern about the gradual disintegration of communities on
      which the countryside is based, and deep resentment, as country people
      perceive it, of having other people’s values imposed on them. I’ll never
      forget when the editor of a London magazine said to me over lunch, “We
      subsidise the countryside in our food bills, they must learn to accept our
      values.” This attitude is known and feared. Countryside people are, by and
      large, pretty peaceful. But apprehension and resentment is enhanced by
      remarks like that. The threat to hunting brought it to a head. Then,
      crucially, because it was an attempt to forbid something, the idea of
      resistance was simple in that it was straightforward to organise around.
      This led to a massive release of energy across the countryside, energy
      which can now be put to constructive use. I fear it will not be, unless we
      have both an adequate policy framework and forms of central government to
      which different communities in the countryside can relate.
      A force for good?
      RR Having expressed my jealousy of the unity and scale of the movement, I
      am also worried about the Countryside Alliance because it seems to do
      exactly what we started by saying we don’t want. It says that there are two
      separate coins. There’s ‘The Countryside,’ and there’s “The City”.
      Communities which is what I’m interested in should be working together.
      There is a danger in using the very general dissatisfaction, which affects
      the city as much as the countryside, in a one-sided way which would not be
      a power for good.
      When the Urban Task Force a group reflecting a wide spectrum of
      interests was working on urban renaissance for the white paper, we
      included, for example, Tony Burton from the Campaign for the Preservation
      of Rural England. We all agreed there was no difference between urbanites
      like myself and those like him who work on the countryside. I’d like to see
      a guerrilla force from the city and countryside work together to improve
      our quality of physical and social life.
      JJ In a way, I’m glad that Richard is worried. It means the Alliance is
      noticed. But I don’t know anybody in the Alliance who wants the countryside
      viewed in isolation from the urban populations. What they deeply resent and
      suspect is that it is the urban population who are hostile to them.
      The fuel protest
      RR What is the relationship between the Alliance, then, and last year’s
      fuel crisis and the petrol strikes? Is there a direct link?
      JJ Not as much as some commentators believe. It would be very unfortunate
      if the Alliance gives rise to the notion that the countryside has to
      organise itself to protect itself against the power of the city.
      RR Getting lots of people together who have a common cause is fine, but
      what is the cause? This is why I brought up the question of the fuel
      protest. In environmental terms we should all pay more for fuel, not less.
      Instead protesters are saying, ‘Why should I pay more than the guys across
      the channel?’
      JJ The Countryside Alliance cannot survive on the basis of protest. When
      we produced our own rural white paper, we could not get any government
      department to read it. We ran into the problem of being labelled the
      ‘hunting lobby’. The more the resistance from central government became
      apparent, the more people became determined that they should be heard.
      Now, the rural manifesto we published for the election should be hugely
      welcomed by urban dwellers: it says that the countryside has to be seen as
      something which belongs to the whole nation. People in it have to live,
      work and have the possibility to do well. But people in the towns and the
      cities are hugely welcome in the countryside and play a major role in
      helping the countryside to be economically viable.
      RR What would be its key principles?
      JJ The countryside should be managed in such a way that there is harmony
      between all the conflicting interests that make demands upon the
      countryside: a thriving and happy community of people, sustainable food and
      timber production, nature conservation, good landscaping, public amenities
      and recreation and sport. These principles embrace everybody.
      A common fight in a new era
      RR It is not going to be quite so easy. Yes, we need to identify shared
      community, through empowerment and participation. But the new era is also
      one in which societies are no longer controlled by the nation. Corporations
      have the ability to run nations. I think they are the enemy in terms of
      democracy and the individual. How are we going to control them? This is the
      really fundamental question.
      We’re now a global society, and many of the corporations of the world earn
      more than most nations, have tremendous power and though they may not have
      the national vote, they have the vote through their dollars. The problem
      we’re facing is how to achieve balance between government, people, and
      large scale business between democratic, empowered communities and
      corporations in whose interests these values play a very small part.
      JJ I entirely agree that the economic and social problem of the power of
      the big corporations has been coming up for years. I think one has to be
      careful not to generalise there are some companies who understand
      extremely well the importance of communities and really do something about
      it. Other corporations are entirely cynical.
      I was very struck by Colin Crouch’s Fabian pamphlet on post-democracy,
      which I’ve just read. I’ve brought it along because I thought this issue
      would come up. He says that general elections are now a “tightly controlled
      spectacle managed by rival teams of professionals, experts in the
      techniques of persuasion and considering a small range of issues collected
      by those teams. The mass of citizens play a passive, quiescent, even
      apathetic part … the electoral game … is really fixed in private by
      interaction between elected government and elites which overwhelmingly
      represent business interest.”
      There is a huge amount of truth in this. It explains part of the enduring
      anger behind the Alliance. We yelled out in protest when the banks
      proceeded to close down their rural branches without local consultation, an
      action which had a profound social impact and caused huge resentment. In my
      area, people were saying ‘we’ ought to be able to stop the banks from doing
      oD It’s not just banks, it’s agribusiness. One of the issues that produces
      cynicism about the Countryside Alliance in city-dwellers is the prairie
      farms and immense fields where country people have pulled out the
      hedgerows, drenched the land in chemicals, industrialised the landscape and
      been massively subsidised. If the Countryside Alliance were to oppose
      corporate food production it might get a lot more allies in towns.
      JJ You’re going down the George Monbiot line. What you say is true, and
      the Countryside Alliance has already made itself quite unpopular with some
      of the agribusiness interests. Our rural white paper makes a clear
      distinction between commercialised agriculture and farming.
      But why did it happen? At the end of the day, human beings are going to do
      those things which pay them best, give them least risk and most reward. In
      the areas where a huge amount of this hedge-grabbing went on, they are now
      uncomfortable about it. But they were given every incentive to do it. This
      is why the policy framework is decisive. If you provide incentives to
      people to engage in the wrong kind of farming, they will. That is what has
      happened, and it’s closely associated with the Common Agricultural Policy,
      which has been disastrous.
      Joined-up policy
      oD The degree of agreement between you is striking but also puzzling. You
      both insist on the need for a coherent overall approach. When it won its
      first election, Labour famously declared its commitment to joined-up
      government. Yet each of you is saying that there is no joined-up policy.
      The puzzle is this: all the key interests and policy advisors say there
      should be a unified policy approach no one opposes this. So where is it?
      JJ The concept of joined-up government doesn’t have a chance because of
      the way in which we’re organised. We have these powerful departments of
      state which are inhabited by highly intelligent and powerful civil servants
      whose main job in life is to look after the interests of their political
      head, who in reality is trying to perform as an ambitious individual rather
      than as a member of a joined-up government.
      RR I agree. Take any part of the city. All government bodies which have
      anything to do with domestic life, have a role in improving the quality of
      life. This is very difficult for the government to accept. For example, if
      the schools and health services don’t work, then the community doesn’t
      work, whatever the Department of the Environment may be doing. In Britain,
      all the activities by ministers and civil servants add up to much less than
      the totality. Indeed, they could do less and it would add up to more, if it
      was done well. I mean with people, instead of treating the population as a
      natives as the introduction to your openDemocracy debate neatly puts it.
      Here in Britain, the whole usually becomes a massive subtraction from the
      parts. If you go to Barcelona, Copenhagen or Rotterdam you’ll see how a
      creative understanding of the way things come together makes the real
      We need a cabinet minister in charge of both cities and countryside. You
      need someone to see that all policies made by each ministry are not
      counter-effective to the policies of the sustainable society that we’re
      talking about. Yes, the Urban Task Force got the recommendations at the end
      of the white paper. There is also a tick by each one. But there is a great
      gap between the tick and reality.
      This can clearly be seen in the election campaign just concluded. It is
      evident that the only meaningful way to connect the city and countryside
      from the perspective of government is to have a well thought-out
      environmental policy. At the same time, none of the major political parties
      addressed this need, neither in their manifestos nor in the campaign
      itself. The environment did not exist as an election issue. Yet the
      environment surely lies at the root of almost every problem we are facing
      as a society both long-term, like transport and global warming, and
      short-term, like foot-and-mouth. These interlocking problems are at root
      environmental, and they bridge the urban and rural spheres at every point.
      My conclusion is that we really must all of us consider changing the way
      we live in significant ways: how and where we settle, how (and how often)
      we travel, how we balance work and leisure, how we produce and consume our
      food. These are environmental questions which should be at the top of the
      political agenda in the years to come.
      On the face of it, the countryside has won. At least in the sense that
      there is unlikely to be an urban renaissance of the kind we need, because
      the odds are against the overall approach that will make it possible.
      Reclaiming the streets
      oD You argue persuasively for higher density cities, but you say it’s not
      higher density that makes a community, there’s got to be other things too.
      Obviously there’s a limit to what designers and builders can do. There’s a
      spiritual and social side to this that we all know about. What do you think
      about streets how important they are, and what has happened to them? Don’t
      you agree that a lot of what went on after the war was a completely
      fallacious concept of planning without the street as its fundamental social
      RR I wish I could disagree with you. Yes, the British government,
      architects and engineers made a tremendous mistake after the war. The
      streets ceased to be streets for people. Again, we’re lagging well behind
      our European neighbours.
      The good news is that streets are beginning to be taken back and people are
      beginning to push out the car. Copenhagen started to give the streets back
      to people about twenty years ago. Now only one third of people there move
      by car, one third by bicycle and one third by public transport. In London,
      only two per cent of people move by bicycle. The main reason being that
      it’s dangerous. In Copenhagen, there are many more cafés, although it’s
      much colder than London. They made detailed studies and put cafes where
      they catch the sun. They study the anatomy of their streets and spaces. It
      is about time that we too took back the streets and made public transport
      work for people.
      Civic society
      oD The Countryside Alliance uses the language of citizenship. The fuel
      protest even drew its inspiration from France. We have had a tradition of
      liberty in Britain but not of citizenship in the sense believing that
      government belongs to ‘We the people’. However, there was a civic,
      municipal culture. This too is now more or less completely hollowed out.
      JJ I think that’s right.
      RR It’s true. Unlike most people, the British actually like to be
      governed. They will change ruling parties as easily as they change their
      footwear. There are not the revolutions you see on the continent. Instead,
      the English are very accepting. They rarely question even their doctors or
      their professionals. They should be more questioning.
      I think cities are becoming much more important and powerful. I foresee
      competitions between cities, such as Paris, Frankfurt and London. We’re
      going back to the city-state in many ways and I welcome it because it’s
      easier to associate at this scale. It’s difficult to see how either
      Britishness or Englishness will be a driver. I am one of those who see us
      going towards a Federation of Europe with city-based identities.
      oD If we are going to connect city, town and country we need some
      governing ideas. Surely the best model we should use is that of the
      network. Instead, increasingly planners even urban planners talk of
      ‘villages’ and ‘communities’, as you have been doing. Geert Mak’s Jorwerd:
      The Death of the Village in late 20th Century Europe, suggests that the
      village is now a redundant concept. Yet it remains dominant in British
      thinking about notions of community.
      RR The reason there has been a strong movement towards the use of the word
      ‘village’, even if you’re living in the city, is because there is a lack of
      community and the word ‘village’ strengthens that concept. Because cities
      are very complex and dynamic, we tend to retreat into cosy language.
      At what point does the garden become the countryside? At what point does
      the countryside become town? If I have a problem it’s with suburban
      sprawl which is neither one thing or another because it has no community.
      Community applies to having not only people who know each other, but also
      the ease of involvement of strangers for the exchanging of ideas.
      Communities are for mixed use, for work and leisure, they contain the
      corner shops or school, and these are the elements we need.
      JJ In large cities, it is hugely difficult to create a sense of community
      in any meaningful way. In the countryside now, too, a large number of
      villages have lost all their shops, post office, school and even bus
      service. In response, we’re seeing the emergence of hubs little towns
      surrounded by villages. If people can relate to a place which they all know
      and use, that is something which helps to glue communities together.
      Perhaps this is the start of a network model.
      I can see why people are worried about the Alliance and what we say about
      the countryside. We do not want it to be perceived as a battlefield. But
      every time a pollster appears on television and says that you must remember
      that most of the votes are in the towns, countryside people look at the
      programme and say. ‘By God, we had better look after ourselves’. This then
      reinforces a flight from political parties. They are supposed to have an
      overall view. People increasingly feel they don’t.
      I worry that the Countryside Alliance is too successful. It’s not healthy
      that a campaigning organisation should be growing so fast when the
      membership of political parties is in decline, and when our form of
      parliamentary democracy is in trouble. Two days before polling day I
      attended a very large meeting of rural people who had come together to
      discuss what concerned them and how to influence policy after the election.
      The suggestion that they should talk to their MPs would have been greeted
      by a gale of laughter. We should all worry about that.
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