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11/12/2015

Things can only get better if we see it through

Words:
Shoeboxes by Oivind Hovland

Chris Shepley looks back in the archives and finds little progress has been made in our efforts to deal with the challenges of London

Chris ShepleyWhen I have a bit of spare time, I love to read back issues of this journal or its various predecessors. The January 1987 edition is a particular favourite, and I thought I might share with you the following rather over-the-top bit of prose. It seems to me to have relevance, even after (almost) 30 years.

“Planners have a higher duty than to fuel the lunatic and damaging rush to live in a single, uncomfortable, uncivilised corner of these Islands. Some must of course… But that does not account for this relentless quest for the stench of the M25; this lemming-like urge to waste hours every day herded into packed trains transferring viruses between passengers; this crazed obsession with spending fortunes on grotty little flats hastily and inharmoniously created in the featureless steppes of Battersea, which could be had for a quarter of the price in more pleasant places; this pointless passion to live within earshot of Heathrow, to sit in endless traffic queues, to flop in a chair on arriving home dirty and exhausted at a time of night when folk in most of the country have taken the dog for a walk, had their tea and engaged in relaxed intercourse for a while; and to rely for relief from the inevitable heart attack on a health service bereft of nurses because they can’t afford to live in the region.

"Planners have a higher duty than to fuel the lunatic and damaging rush to live in a single, uncomfortable, uncivilised corner of these Islands"

“By what contorted logic has this come to be the lot of the 21st century human? How can a policy (for such I suppose it to be) of thrusting yet more folk into this bubbling maelstrom of unhealthy hyper-activity possibly be justified? Is the endless, mindless shoe-horning of still more little houses into this hot pot of human suffering in any way defensible?”

Now, I’ve very slightly altered this effusion to make it 21st century-compliant; I feel justified in doing so because a young Shepley was the original author, and he was obviously in a bit of a tizz that day. But I think you might agree that he had a point, and that things, if anything, can only get worse.

"Efforts were put into supporting various manufacturing industries, but these were deemed surplus to requirements in the ’80s"

There were, earlier in my lifetime when governments did actual useful things, some quite considerable attempts to attack this problem. Efforts were put into supporting various manufacturing industries, but these were deemed surplus to requirements in the ’80s – a matter upon which a roomful of economists would have a roomful of different views. Norman Tebbit told provincial job seekers to get on their bikes and look for work (advice which has been taken to heart by impoverished migrants from various parts of Africa, but that’s another issue). London and the South-East are now surely doomed to face entirely foreseeable problems such as air pollution, water shortages (coming your way soon), colossal infrastructure costs, and endless bickering about the need for new housing, for the rest of my lifetime and yours.

The unaffordability of housing in and around London, and its social consequences, has been well documented, and the lack of effective action to tackle it stretches credibility. Other than having people living in cardboard boxes in the middle of the road – as Monty Python suggested in a respected academic work – it’s hard to see how the city can continue to function. 

The elaborate PR exercise which has come to be known as the Northern Powerhouse is the only visible response to all this. There are, up North where I come from, some talented people who will make the best of this. But as a strategic policy, unbacked as it is by any substantial financial support, it falls well short of our predecessors’ determination to make a difference. Only, I suppose, if the South-East becomes completely unfit for human habitation will the remaining regions and nations start to be taken seriously. This must be a real possibility.

Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector

ILLUSTRATION | OIVIND HOVLAND

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