The urban taskforce is filled with brownfield Taliban, but one member knows we don’t need to live in city-centre boxes. So why doesn’t Sir Peter Hall tells the others?

In 1999, after a youthful New Labour contracted out planning policy to the urban taskforce, the taskforce produced a report. It was called Towards an Urban Renaissance, and it advocated greater urban densities and an expansion of public participation in planning. This was to be expected; after all, it was not the suburban taskforce. The urban presumption made it pointless for anyone asked, “Where do you want to live?” to answer: “In a big house with a garden, please.” So, despite the fact that the urban taskforce’s 14 members all enjoyed plenty of living space, they argued that most other people would have to make do with less.

The 14 reconvened this year, about the time that chairman Rogers went public with complaints that the government was failing to take its original proposals seriously enough – despite its ideas having been incorporated into the government’s policy of promoting “sustainable communities”.

The 2005 urban taskforce update is being finalised now. It should be with us, like a turkey, for Christmas. And it seems that not all of its members are happy to continue the practice established in the past six years of cramming the public into tiny flats slotted into the award-winning, sustainable, car-free developments that have become the core business of the – now misnamed – volume housebuilders.

Sir Peter Hall, for one, seems worried that the reluctance to allow suburbia to grow has become an obsession. He appreciated as early as 1966, when he published his book The World Cities, that urban centres grow through their suburbs, thanks to advances in transportation.

It was always odd that Hall, who made his career arguing for a variety of developments that people aspire to live in, should back the view that cities must be compact. This cartoon version of planning policy dates from John Gummer in 1996. As possibly the last-ever Conservative secretary of state for the environment, Gummer demanded that “we use every opportunity to protect greenfield sites”.

That anti-suburban sentiment resonated through the Reith lectures that Rogers gave in 1995, which were published as Cities for a Small Planet in the election year of 1997. By 2000, the sustainable vision had shrunk further to Cities for a Small Country, written with Anne “Brownfield” Power at the London School of Economics. This put forward the deterministic claim that community follows naturally from proximity.

It has taken Hall far too long to begin to publicly object to the ludicrous claim, made by his fellow taskforce members, that the car-based suburbs that are required for most households to have private gardens threaten environmental disaster and atomise society.

It has taken Hall far too long to begin to publicly object to the ludicrous claim that the car-based suburbs required for most households to have private gardens threaten environmental disaster and atomise society

Rogers believes that suburban sprawl is “consuming greenfield sites at an alarming rate, causing social and economic decline within inner-city areas”. This is nonsense. In Cities in Civilization: Culture, Innovation and Urban Order, published the same year that the taskforce was appointed, Hall pointed out that ever cleaner and more efficient transport technologies are required in a largely suburban society. He knew then that suburbia was the norm and that technology could make it work better. A ban on suburbia in favour of the compact city represents a rejection of contemporary culture, a failure to innovate and an attempt to deny the range of possible urban orders.

Even by reluctantly endorsing the taskforce report, Hall will again undermine his ability to resist the brownfield fundamentalists in their attempt to contain the British population to 10% of the landmass. Hall might have given his taskforce colleagues a copy of The Containment of Urban England. This is his 1973 analysis of the British town and country planning system, praised by the judging committee of the International Balzan Prize Foundation as “based on a formidable amount of statistical research”.

Hall focused on the processes of growth in England and Wales after the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, when farmers were no longer free to sell their land for development, and on the consequences of trying to guide land use.

The Balzan foundation “has the aim of fostering culture, the sciences and the most meritorious humanitarian initiatives”. Hall has deservedly won one of the four Balzan prizes for 2005 and will be presented with 1 million Swiss francs (£430,000) at a ceremony in Berne, Switzerland, today.

If only he would use some of that award to criticise the containment exercise that the urban taskforce is engaged in, and end the farcical resistance of an ageing New Labour government to building family homes with gardens.