Prescott's statement had the prosaic title, "Planning". It dealt with national planning guidance for housing, and regional planning guidance for south-east England. It laid down a revised national target that 60% of new homes should be on recycled land, 10% higher than the Tory government's target of 50%. It stated an objective of reducing car dependence by facilitating more walking and cycling. It pointed out that 70% of new households over the next 20 years would be single-person households.
All of these statements were significant. All of the policies were important and some of them were controversial, although newspapers of differing political persuasions have welcomed them in general. But revolutionary? What was revolutionary about Prescott's statement was the clear and unequivocal assumption that high housing densities are a good thing. Such a judgement goes against most of the received wisdom of the past half-century, and indeed a lot longer than that, both in Britain and abroad. The sacred dictum has been that high densities are bad, low densities are desirable. That dictum has been the basis for housing policy in most parts of the developed world.
Fly over such cities such as Phoenix, Arizona, or drive out from Melbourne, Australia, and you will see sprawling housing developments stretching over vast acreages. Such a sight is one of the opening shots of the marvellous film American Beauty. Each house must be detached from its neighbours, must have the largest possible patch of land attached to it, and, if at all possible, should have its own swimming pool.
In Britain, such an approach led to the construction of the garden suburbs before the last war and the new towns after it.
This policy ate up land voraciously. Even in countries such as the USA and Australia, which possess lots of land, it led to exurban anomie (which, indeed, is the theme of American Beauty). There were lots of houses, true, and some of them were attractive enough; but too often they were not located in true communities. In Britain, where land is scarce, such developments, when let rip, ate into the green belt – another creation of Labour governments.
Go to certain other countries in Europe and you can see how communities survive where high density has not been an obsession. Communities with canals or walls survive best.
It may be heresy to say so, but slum clearance too often destroyed communities’ hearts and souls
Recently, I was in Bruges, where the inner area functions fantastically well, with a marketplace that is a genuine and thriving shopping district. Here, the local authority has preserved a lovely European city by preventing development rather than encouraging it.
Venice, where sprawl is curbed by the enveloping canals, may have serious problems, but it retains a superb community pattern. In Britain, York, within its walls, is another example of how to get it right.
Harlow, Basildon and Milton Keynes were all planned developments, but they were not always community developments. Community developments exist in many of the high-density areas of Britain's industrial towns and inner cities. A lot of the original housing was of low quality – back to back, one up, one down. But even in the worst areas they nurtured communities with a heart and a soul. It may be heresy to say so, but slum clearance too often destroyed those hearts and souls.
Now Prescott has dared to assert the previously heretical view that there are virtues in communities with high housing densities – provided they are properly planned. Indeed, his 7 March statement included a commitment to "investigate the potential for high-quality, well-planned development" in Milton Keynes and Ashford, Kent, filling in spaces to enhance communities.
Prescott denounced what he called "the old predict-and-provide approach to housing, which gave us urban sprawl, out-of-town shopping and pepper-pot development". To receive wisdom – as distinct from listening to received wisdom – from a senior minister is extremely refreshing.
The Right Honourable Gerald Kaufman is MP for Manchester Gorton and chairman of the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee