Six years after the urban taskforce brought forth its seminal report, we can begin to see what it got right and wrong – and what it should do next time …
The urban taskforce’s decision to burst into life again is making me feel old. I can’t quite believe it’s more than six years since I had the privilege of acting as their secretary.
The reality is of course that they’ve never been away – more an eternal Rolling Stones tour than a Pink Floyd G8 reunion. Lord Rogers has expressed his opinions in the press at regular intervals and the taskforce’s members, like apostles of the creed, have been spreading the good word in the many different institutions they’ve worked for ever since.
So what difference has six years made? I’m not really the right person to critique the original report. but here goes … I think the taskforce got the design material spot on, and it was instrumental in setting up CABE as the champion of good masterplanning. The material on “home zones” and local traffic hierarchies still holds water and many neighbourhoods are safer and more pleasant today as a consequence.
On land assembly and speeding up planning, the taskforce also got it right by steering a careful course between the polar positions of two of their star players, Sir Peter Hall and Tony Burton, then of Council for the Protection of Rural England.
And perhaps surprisingly to some, not least the Treasury, the taskforce did rather well on some of the finance issues, thereby paving the way for tax breaks on the refurbishment of historic buildings and the clean-up of contaminated land, real estate investment trusts and joint ventures.
By contrast, it was more than a little shaky on transport, owing to lack of expertise, and the absence of clear conclusions on some of the big infrastructure issues looks like a gap. And in retrospect, we can see that there was not enough material on social and economic issues, and not enough on the nitty-gritty of neighbourhood regeneration, particularly in suburbia. Oh, and there were far too many recommendations, probably double the number required – but we can put that down to over-enthusiasm. At least it gave the government a selection to go at - à la carte rather than table d’hôte, in River Cafe terms.
The taskforce did make one mistake – which I take responsibility for – and that was to propose dates by which the recommendations should be implemented. This was blushingly naive
The taskforce did make one mistake – which I take responsibility for – and that was to propose dates by which the recommendations should be implemented. This was blushingly naive and a step too far for some of the civil servants. Over the years the ODPM and the Treasury have picked off many of those recommendations. The quantity implemented or part-implemented stands more than half – not a bad tally.
But has it all led to an urban renaissance? Well, in terms of our main city centres, the timing of the taskforce was always a bit of a con. The reality is that in places such as Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds, the renaissance was already well under way before the taskforce had shared its first round of cafe lattes. On the other hand, a lot of the principles that it espoused – on design, urban management, land assembly – laid the foundations of the sustainable communities policy. And without the taskforce, it is questionable whether we would have had the same levels of neighbourhood management, the Urban Regeneration Companies and so on.
So with the taskforce tuning up for one final performance – although never say never – where might it be focusing its messages?
First, I hope it recognises the government’s achievements as well as what is still to be done. Second, I hope it revives some of the better ideas that have yet to see light of day – tax increment financing and the single remediation licence. Next, I hope they are sensible on the density and brownfield issues, that they don’t go for a one-size-fits-all solution but recognise that what’s great for Barcelona isn’t necessarily great for Basingstoke. And finally I hope they recognise and address the deficiencies of the first effort; for example, in the wake of Birmingham and indeed Paris, the report has to say something about community cohesion.
In a funny way, I’m sorry not to be involved this time around; indeed I’m going to be on the receiving end of some of the recommendations. But taskforce secretaries, like Spinal Tap drummers, are easily replaced. This show, one feels, will run and run.
Jon Rouse is chief executive of the Housing Corporation