Why is Salisbury closer to Santa Fe than Manchester is to Leeds? Well, you'll have to go to Birmingham in the autumn to answer that question …
Not long ago, our newspapers were adorned with photographs of what had been judged to be this country's most beautiful view – the prospect of Salisbury cathedral. Well, so what? How can you go wrong? A dramatically lovely cathedral in a small city is impossible to spoil.

Impossible? Travel 60 miles north, and you will come to another city with a fine cathedral, Gloucester, whose centre has been wrecked by insensitive and unsightly development.

Now consider two northern cities whose principal development – until recent times – was during the Victorian era. One is Leeds, where I was born and grew up. The other is Manchester, where I have been an MP for more than 32 years.

Both have thriving inner centres, but Manchester's has been massively disfigured by the construction of the hideous Arndale Centre, which dominates the city centre, with other excrescences not far behind. Leeds, on the other hand, while not faultless in the way it has developed, has been wise in not only preserving but enhancing its grid-patterned shopping and entertainment area, keeping a rectangle of arcade-based thoroughfares that abut on a fine market building to create one of the most pleasurable urban spaces in Europe.

I bring these matters to your attention because 1500 delegates are about to embark on the most comprehensive examination of urban issues ever attempted in Britain. They are meeting in Birmingham to discuss the progress of the urban white paper, launched by deputy prime minister John Prescott two years ago.

We should have a pillory session, at which those who vandalised so many British cities should be pelted with replicas of buildings

It will not be on the same planetary scale as Johannesburg, but the Birmingham summit will be huge. Among the subjects being discussed will be neighbourhood renewal, economic and environmental development, the role of cultural venues in regeneration, changing work patterns, the relationship of urban and rural issues, health in cities, urban local government, social exclusion, education, transport, planning, law and order, multicultural and multi-ethnic issues, and city centre development.

All of these ingredients, and more, go towards making life not simply acceptable but fulfilling in urban areas. Heaven knows, over the past half-century we have got enough of them wrong in Britain to know how essential it is to put them right. Birmingham itself is an example of what can be done: a city that was a byword for culpably thoughtless urban development has become an inspiring example of urban renaissance, with its plazas, walkways, canals.

Living satisfactorily in urban areas depends on a near infinity of ingredients. But the most important of these is pride – and a determination to defend what is best. I have just returned from a visit to the opera festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The centre part is based on a Spanish city that was founded in 1610. Over the centuries there has, of course, been change. But totally stringent planning controls have meant that a lovely city has remained a lovely city.

Let me be clear. There is much good work being done in our urban areas. In my constituency, we have thriving urban renewal projects in areas that were on the verge of being given up as irreclaimable. Local citizens work with official organisations to improve their own environment and cityscape.