Home

Mr. Town meets Mr. Country

John Jackson Richard Rogers
13 June 2001

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 implementation.

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.

open – 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

open – 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 that.

Hedge-grabbing

open – 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

open – 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 difference.

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

open – 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 part?

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

open – 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.

open – 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.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Comments

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData