If you start at the bottom of the tree of intelligent life, you would first find the transport officers of Oxfordshire County Council. You would go up past stones and worms and ferns and come to Caroline Flint and John Prescott, then on up past goldfish and those responsible for planning our railways. After that, you would pass planning officers, Vicky Pollard and reach all the way to Stephen Fry at the top.
All of those except Vicky Pollard and Stephen Fry (and the goldfish of course) have a hand in the planning of the eco-towns which NuLabour intends to dump on areas with Conservative majorities, including Weston-on-the-Green, just down the road from here.
It is not just uncontrolled immigration and generous benefits for fecund single mothers which have given us the housing shortage. This was predictable, and predicted, when NuLabour came to power over a decade ago. For most of that time, John Prescott was in charge, as he was of everything else which bored Tony Blair. As with so much else about Labour’s ten years, the sheer waste of opportunity is sickening. With the powers, funds, goodwill and political incentive at his disposal, Prescott could have achieved great things or, rather, someone with a brain in Prescott’s position could have done. Instead, we had his “bulldoze the North, concrete the south” policy.
Every property shyster in the North – surveyors, builders, developers – ripped off the Government in this wave of destruction, whilst their kin in the South made money hand over fist from pouring concrete onto grass. Infrastructure elements like water supply, schools, health services and transport links were neglected, and flood plains were built on. Defenders of the countryside stood aghast as houses with no quality, no style and no amenity value were dumped on the fields. Dumb planning officers ticked boxes, objections were ignored in mock consultations – and still there were no homes for first-time buyers.
Now a housing shortage meets a wave of eco-trendiness (to say nothing of a financial crisis). Everything from government policies to sausages has an eco-label put on it for marketing purposes. Gordon Brown’s plan for ten large new settlements is no exception. The eco bit has no purpose beyond an attempt to make the unacceptable seem worthy.
Weston-on-the-Green is being marketed like the rest. The houses will conform to various eco-standards, each of which, whatever its merits, will drive up the building cost. The theory is that the public will warm (or will feel it proper to affect to warm) to these models of green propriety. Public transport links and all the other infrastructure will support these new “communities” (sounds so much better than ‘housing estates’ doesn’t it?).
If we believed a word of it, there might be a higher measure of acceptance. As it is, the farmers who will profit from the sale of their land are the only ones welcoming the plans. The houses will be the same cheap-looking little boxes which developers and planners have always foisted on us in lifeless, ugly sprawls devoid of any humanity. The transport links will not be built, and will not work well if they are built, partly because all sorts of cost-cutting will be imposed between the publication of the plans and their construction, and partly because of the sort of people who work in public transport. We do not have enough policemen, nurses or teachers in Oxfordshire as it is, and whilst the theory is that the housing will attract recruits, there will not be the money for the posts. The houses will either be beyond the means of those who need them or will be cheaply and tackily built – probably both.
Any residual faith dissipates when you look at the sort of people in charge. The Housing Minister, Caroline Flint, promoted thanks to Peter Hain’s very New Labour attitude to money and the rules (that is, the money is for me and the rules are for other people) is Prescott’s brain in an attractive wrapper, ambitious, domineering and deeply stupid. The brilliance of St Pancras should not lead us to expect a general reversal of the truth that we cannot do big public transport projects any more. The road links will fall to be cocked up by a combination of funding cutbacks and the incompetence of Oxfordshire’s highways officers. Slow-witted planning officers will trudge thrugh the mechanics with no vision and no concept as to how the developers’ plans will translate into reality. The developers will run rings round them, and the end-result will bear little relationship to the advertisements which win them the development rights.
Ten years wasted, and now eco-towns overseen by Caroline Flint. God help us.