Simon Jenkins on Gordon Brown's agenda

Mark mark at
Wed May 16 11:30:32 BST 2007

on the day of the release of the New Planning White Paper....

Brown is and always has been the City of London's poodle. The only man who could have challenged him, Robin Cook, fell off a mountain.

The housing boom he dreams of is all about what's best for builders and hypermarkets, not homeless young Britons

Simon Jenkins
Wednesday May 16, 2007
The Guardian

Politics in the 20th century was about redistributing money. In the 21st
century it will be about redistributing power. Any politician who forgets
that will fail. With most Britons financially secure and the poor reduced
to electoral triviality by Tony Blair, the relationship between citizens
and the state - autonomy within democracy - will be the great challenge of
Gordon Brown's reign.

Blair flirted with it in his brief "communitarian" phase, which lasted
until he acquired power and lost interest in ceding it, other than to the
Scots and Welsh, after 1997. Brown has hinted at an awareness of the new
politics, notably in his Hugo Young lecture of 2005. He claimed that
"liberty demands that we break up any centralised institutions ... so that
power so devolved brings real self-government to communities". But his (or
his speechwriter's) words were wholly detached from his deeds. He showed
not the slightest interest in power redistribution, other than to himself
and his friends in the City.

Hence the interest shown in Brown's much-mooted programme for a change in
government. On the surface it has seemed pure Blair, the phraseology of
Downing Street's candyfloss factory. We heard this week that every child
counts (Blair 1997, Brown 2000), that health needs more autonomy (Blair
2001), that this is a listening government (Blair 2005) and that
government must "serve the people" (New Labour passim). As yet we have
seen none of the dazzling innovation that Brown's spin doctors tell us
will compensate for his lack of people skills. As Peter Oborne's
hair-raising Channel 4 report suggested on Monday, he is as addicted to
the instant initiative and short-term policy fix as Blair.

The one concrete proposal to emerge has the virtue of being literally
concrete: five "eco-friendly" towns , apparently on derelict rural sites
in the south. No matter that these were announced five years ago by John
Prescott, including the only one Brown named (the A10/M11 "sustainable
city" corridor in Cambridgeshire). This was mood music, presenting Brown
as saviour of the planet and satisfying his new poor, by turning them into
Margaret Thatcher's "property-owning democrats".

A longing to build cities used to be a sign of utopian madness, much
favoured by dictators and communists. These "Brownvilles" recall the
socialist belief that the new Jerusalem lay in concreting over the
flatlands and building Letchworth, Skelmersdale and Cumbernauld, into
which humans could be poured like so many pints from a barrel. They hark
back to Lewis Silkin's new towns under Attlee, which abandoned Britain's
older cities to rot and modern architecture. Almost all the new
settlements were social failures, one-generation, one-class,
overprescriptive and ruled from above. Brown's team should read Estates,
Lynsey Hanley's devastating study, before proceeding.

In his speeches, Brown has spoken of re-empowering institutions and
re-engaging the public with the political process. Yet the building boom
he wants to unleash across southern England is a target-driven imposition,
with no more concept of communal or civic autonomy than the dispersed new
towns of his ideological forebears. His are to be market-led residential,
retail and commercial estates as advocated by the developer lobbyists, his
aide Kate Barker, and the planning white paper due today. I suspect it
will contain no reference to planning as having a duty to promote social
cohesion or civic enterprise.

Planning is seen by the Treasury as solely about economic growth, as under
Lenin. Hence the white paper's proposed severing of any relationship with
democratic accountability. This reform must confront not just democracy,
but European and human rights law. The new centralised structure will be a
recipe for legal dispute. What should be a creative debate between
communities and the planning system - as in high-growth New England and
California - will be conducted mostly in court. Such obsessive centralism
will end in more cost and delay, not less. For the cerebral Brown to
proclaim communal autonomy while the political Brown disempowers those
same communities is hypocrisy.

What is odd is that Brown has a chance, after two decades of economic
growth, to shift the centre of gravity of development from the south. He
could leave costs to rise there and use his subsidies and tax reliefs to
direct development to the slowly regenerating cities of the north and
west. If Brown can release their resources of pride and enterprise, he
could yet find his legacy in a new age of British urban revival.

The sensible way to redistribute housing wealth, as well as promote
balanced development, is to free onto the market the millions of acres of
empty and underoccupied inner-city land. It is to the physical
regeneration of Swansea, Blackburn, Hull, Sunderland, Paisley and Dundee
that Brown should be directing his attention, not to building his
political castles in the air. Nor will these castles be, as he claims,
"carbon zero". They require carbon to build, carbon-rich infrastructure to
operate and occupants who will not leave home without burning carbon. To
call them carbon zero, simply to justify ending the current presumption in
favour of city-centre renewal, is a nonsense.

Cities have land, schools, hospitals, social services and police forces in
place. They can house Brown's 200,000 extra people with relative ease.
More relevant to Brown's professed communitarianism, cities possess
readymade political and social institutions, agents of cohesion. They are
real, not ersatz, places, and their governors would mostly welcome
Treasury incentives to grow. Yet Brown wants to promote out-of-town
development at their expense.

The reason the political Brown does not listen to the cerebral Brown is
cynical. He cites the young's ownership aspirations, but these can be met
in cities. The reality is that he is susceptible to private housebuilder
and hypermarket lobbyists, who want cheap and easy rural sites from which
to profit. Like the political Brown, they have an aversion to living,
breathing cities with political blood in their veins, because they can be
trouble. Brown does not know how to turn that trouble to account, either
in promoting balanced economic growth or in housing young Britons in
low-carbon urban neighbourhoods. So he and the lobbies head for the

A mighty clash must now be taking place on the secret stage of Brown's
ideological theatre. There will be no better test of the coming era than
who wins.
simon.jenkins at

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