New Communities

The second major influence on our communities is where we choose - or are allowed - to rest after a day's work. In other words, where we live.

Roger Humber, director-general of the UK House Builders Federation, is adamant that people want to move outwards, and no amount of pressure for sustainable development and in-filling of urban areas will change that. It is almost inevitable that UK cities will follow the US pattern, with an urban underclass left behind as the rest of the population flees outwards in search of a better life in new settlements, he says.

Finding land for new housing should not be as much of a problem as some insist, even though the UK is a relatively small group of islands. Farming will shrink as subsidies decline, according to Mr Humber. If fields and pastures are left unused, they will revert to ugly scrubland. Development profits could be used to manage these spare acres, so housing would enhance rather than destroy the countryside. This will also open up the countryside as very little is accessible at the moment because farmers, quite naturally, do not want people tramping over their crops.

One major problem is who will pay for new communities. Infrastructure costs are beyond the private sector, so a partnership of public and private money must be formed. This is not a new idea: a dozen or so new towns have been built this way in the UK already and it only requires the political will to repeat the exercise.

Nor will this run against the trend of sustainability and conservation of resources. Modest new settlements will cut energy consumption by reducing the need for people to commute into large cities. There is a danger, however, that such communities will be no more than an extension of the "edge cities" already mentioned - affluent, middle-class retreats from the dereliction of inner cities.

John Thompson says it requires a major shift in attitude by British planners to enable enough new communities to satisfy demand, otherwise the few that are built will command such high property prices that they are bound to be wealthy enclaves. But he is not optimistic. Lack of government intervention in cities has been matched by fervent over-protection of the countryside.

This stems from the strong hold rural voters have on the Conservative government. A change of political power to the Labour Party, traditionally stronger in towns, may change this emphasis.

Filling the Towns

Not everyone is ready to write off existing towns and cities. David Pretty, chairman of Barratt South, a division of one of Britain's largest housebuilders is convinced that in the next century we will be living much as we are today. Vast areas of the inner cities are already being regenerated, he says. London's Docklands is a prime example, but cities such as Cardiff, Bristol and Gloucester are changing urban industrial land to housing.

Old buildings are also being given new life as homes. Despite the urge to live in green and pleasant surroundings, there will always be demand for such buildings because younger people enjoy living in the middle of towns, close to work and entertainment, says Mr Pretty. That has often meant renting or paying very high prices in the past because of the scarcity of good accommodation. In the 21st century they will have a bigger choice.

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