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Issue 36, March 1999

Global Warning

NEARLY NINETY per cent of the population of Britain live in towns and cities. Yet the quality of urban life has declined due to decades of neglect. For years central government cut local government spending, investment in public transport and the powers of local authorities. London has had no elected government since 1985. The money that has been spent on cities has mainly been private developments concentrating on leisure or shopping provision, while the fabric of cities has suffered.

There is a strong anti-urban trend in much of English thought especially, with an idealised view of rural life. This is in contrast to many European countries which have a strong sense of urban pride and quality of life. A large portion of the environmental movement concentrates on rural and wildlife issues in Britain and internationally while neglecting urban issues in Britain.

Yet there are mounting problems of urban decay and the environment. Cities consume most resources and produce most waste. They have suffered from the growth of out-of-town shopping, housing and workplaces, all of which depend on travel by cars. Even health trusts have been closing hospitals on inner-city sites to sell the land for profit and move out of town, yet a high percentage of hospital users do not use a car.

Last year the New Labour government set up an Urban Task Force to review policy, with Richard Rogers as chair. Rogers is one of Britain's leading architects who takes a broad integrated outlook and is an outspoken supporter of cities. In his book Cities for a Small City, he points out that the main problems of cities are due to "bottom line economics whose purpose is... getting hold of tomorrow's money today", the failure of trickle-down policies, and present car-based transport. He argues for a policy that integrates environmental, economic and social concerns to create cities that are just, diverse, creative, ecologically sustainable, provide ease of access based on non-car travel, and are attractive to live in.

Now the Urban Task Force has produced its interim report which aims for neighbourhoods with direct access to jobs, shops, leisure and community facilities, and good connections between neighbourhoods and urban centres. Walking, cycling and high quality public transport would be the main forms of transport. Linked to these aims is a change from urban sprawl and out-of-town development to varied and dense cities.

  Good facilities and jobs within localities would dramatically reduce the need for long car-based journeys. High quality public transport would further reduce the need for cars. There are in fact already many schemes to improve public transport that could be followed. In Holland 83% of children cycle safely to school. Even as simple a thing as providing good bus lanes, not just for a few hundred yards, can have results. A route in Ipswich which cost 2.3 million has increased passenger use 42% with a shift from cars to buses. But to finance even this modest investment nationally would require a major change in policy from now, where over 90% of Department of Transport spending is on roads. Facilities close by, and public spaces not choked with cars and their fumes, would encourage walking and cycling.

The report states the need for more ecologically balanced urban development which uses resources effectively. It takes up the argument that cities are inevitably destructive of the environment. If well designed and compact, cities can minimise many uses of energy. Buildings can be built so that the heat of the sun, the people in it and the incidental heat from refrigerators, computers and other machines are enough to keep them warm, even in winters much colder than in Britain. Many electric generating systems at present have cooling systems that discharge waste heat into the environment. If instead, this 'waste' was used to heat water and buildings, in Combined Heat and Power schemes (CHP), the energy efficiency could be more than doubled. If, as well, some urban waste, which is presently dumped in landfill sites or at sea, is used as fuel, these generating systems could be designed to reduce the use of fossil fuels, the dumping of waste and the production of greenhouse gases with virtually no pollution.

The Task Force favours a dramatic improvement in the quality of life by combining a range of policies including improving social well being, strong local government, change in land use policies, quality urban design and change in transport policy. They believe that it is vital for the well being of cities that all of the urban population share "economic and social benefits".

  Rogers states that two areas of urban local government provision that need particular improvement are urban schools and public housing. He points out that "in the Netherlands you can't tell the difference between local authority housing and private dwellings". British public housing, however, has suffered from decades of a lack of investment and maintenance. Some estates are a disaster and should be transformed or replaced, as Liverpool council did in the mid-1980s. But many estates have well-built houses and need a major investment in repairs, local facilities, good public transport and jobs. Yet New Labour is still pursuing the Tory agenda of cutting spending on public housing and selling off estates to private developers.

This government's education policy, rather than investing in and improving schools, is based mainly on attacking teachers. Blunkett has announced plans to further undermine education with the possibility of schools being run by business. This undermines local democracy and education. In general, local authorities are still under attack from New Labour, with continued privatisation and cuts.

On transport, the government has suggested a few good ideas such as allowing local authorities to control and charge business for private parking spaces. But many more possibilities were ignored and the 'good ideas' are not included in any proposed legislation. Meanwhile, privatising the London Underground is going ahead and there is no fundamental change in the underfunded, privatised and uncontrolled public transport systems that the Tories created.

The interim report states, with commendable honestly, that "an urban renaissance is not going to come easily or cheaply... (and will) require a radical policy change". By the time the full report, due in the summer, has been spun by New Labour its result will probably be reduced to pious good words and some effort to reduce new housing on greenfield sites.

On the positive side, however, the report will help to generate debate on the future of cities. Its strengths are its focus on improving the urban environment and quality of life and its insistence on the linking of a range of issues and policies. Socialists can use this opportunity to combine these concerns and put forward a radical alternative to the present neglect of urban life.

Bill Hopwood

Updates

IN THE December-January edition (No.34), we looked at the then growing debate over genetically modified (GM) food. A subsequent survey, published early in the new year, found that 51% of people thought that GM food was unacceptable. The survey commented that there was an "ongoing collapse of public support for genetically modified foods". Now the issue of GM food threatens to become New Labour's very own 'BSE crisis'.

THE MOVE by the major capitalist powers to introduce the Multilateral Investment Agreement (MIA), which would have increased the power of big business to force governments to remove rules that protected local economies, the environment, wages and conditions, faced a world-wide opposition movement. (See Socialism Today No.26, March 1998). This opposition has meant that there has been no agreement on the MIA and it has been shelved. This is a victory for workers and environmentalists - but no doubt at some stage big business will seek once again to push through similar changes in the rules of world trade.


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