A year ago we were asked to contribute to a new book examining the crisis in – and hopes for the future of – our cities. Mark Walton reflects on how it stands up in the very different context in which it is being published.

Back in the summer of 2019 Kate Swade and I were asked to submit an essay for inclusion in a new book about the future of Britain’s cities. Urban Crisis, Urban Hope: a policy agenda for UK cities was launched today. It contains a series of essays about the precarious position of individuals and institutions in the contemporary city, and offers an agenda for change. In it we proposed the need for national and local land use strategies, a right to public space, and a strengthening of the community right to buy.

An awful lot has changed since last summer. We had a general election that not only ensured that the withdrawal agreement passed through Parliament setting a course for our departure from the European Union, but also saw the Conservatives taking a slew of seats in post-industrial northern towns and cities that were once considered Labour heartlands. These political shifts were followed by a global pandemic and widespread protests and debate about ongoing issues of racial injustice.

So how relevant is our analysis of 12 months ago in the light of such massive political and social upheavals?

In our essay we describe how shifts in ownership of land from public to private, and from being seen as a long term store of wealth to a highly tradable commodity, have contributed to our urban crisis by squeezing out space for leisure, living, expression and personal agency.

Our living spaces are smaller, and our public spaces have become privatised and more constrained, meaning that we have lost spaces and places where we can freely gather and express ourselves. The experience of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted and exacerbated these issues. Those hit hardest in terms of physical and mental health have been those without access to private gardens or safe public outdoor space. People of colour have faced a quadruple impact in this regard; being the hardest hit by the virus, having least access to private gardens, tending to be poorly served in terms of the quality of public space in their neighbourhoods, and facing racism and discriminatory policing when they do go out to local parks. Our parks have also become the sites of socially distanced gatherings to protest these injustices in recent weeks.

"Shifts in ownership of land from public to private, and from long term store of wealth to highly tradable commodity, have contributed to our urban crisis ... squeezing out space for leisure, living, expression and personal agency"

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We also point out how rapidly rising land prices mean that an increasing proportion of our incomes are taken by housing costs, reducing our disposable incomes and placing a downward pressure on food and clothing prices. Whilst the early stages of the pandemic brought widespread farm labour shortages, demonstrating the fragility of a food system based on cheap migrant labour, we are currently seeing spikes in infections amongst workers in meat and garment factories, exposing how the need to reduce costs in these industries has led to endemic issues of low pay, long hours and unsanitary working conditions.

Finally, we discuss the fact that in places that have faced the withdrawal of industry and capital, disinvestment has led to empty shops and struggling high streets. These are the conditions facing many of those communities who voted Conservative in the first time in the 2019 election, prompting the new Government to promise a ‘levelling up’ agenda. Once again the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated existing underlying weaknesses and disparities. High street businesses have been badly hit and, with a move to home working and ongoing concerns about transmission of the virus, footfall and spending are not expected to return to previous levels. We expect to see a huge increase in empty retail and office premises, and there are worrying signs that the public sector is considering a fire sale of publicly owned land and buildings to refill the coffers left empty by the pandemic response.

It seems then that COVID-19 has acted to expose and heighten – rather than significantly change – the weaknesses and inequalities we explored 12 months ago.

But what of our proposed solutions?

Credit: Phil Reid

In the essay we proposed a new vision for our peri-urban land and Green Belt; one that was productive, linking the urban and rural, creating food and timber, sequestering carbon and creating jobs and training opportunities in short local supply chains directly linking producers and consumers. The development of the edges of our towns and cities as productive places seems more urgent than ever. Locally based food producers proved resilient in the face of the pandemic and local agriculture and woodland management offer the opportunity for meaningful green jobs as we face historic levels of youth unemployment. For such a peri-urban economy to thrive we will need local and national land use strategies developed by democratically accountable government at the national and local level, to encourage and incentivise forms of management that put local people in control and meet local needs.

We also called for a ‘right to public space’; a shared set of rights of access to, and use of, public open space that apply whoever owns it. The pandemic has highlighted the absolute need for access to safe, high quality green space for all – including calls to open private green spaces like golf courses. Future green space provision and access must be based on need and recognised as a right that sits with the citizen, not one that is granted, constrained and policed by the landowner.

Finally we recommended that the existing ‘community right to bid’ in England should be significantly strengthened in line with the ‘community right to buy‘ enjoyed by citizens in Scotland. In particular communities should be given first refusal when a piece of land is put on the market, and should be able to buy land that is abandoned, neglected or causing harm to the environmental wellbeing of the community, even where the owner does not wish to sell. The potential for a hollowing out of the high street, a potential crash in the market for office space, and an ill advised potential fire sale of public assets make a strengthening of the community right to buy – backed up with a ‘land and assets fund’ similar to the Scottish Land Fund – an urgent necessity.

"We need a ‘right to public space’; a shared set of rights of access to, and use of, public open space that apply whoever owns it"

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In the year since we were asked to contribute to the book the ‘urban crisis’ has most certainly deepened, and is likely to deepen further as the shock waves from the pandemic start to be felt in the economy and in communities everywhere. What has also been more urgently exposed is the intersection of all of these issues with long standing racial inequalities.

It is imperative that we recognise the role of land in our urban crisis, and take action to introduce new policies, rights and funding if communities are to be able to use land and assets to rebuild local economies that are sustainable, resilient, resourceful and just.

You can see a summary of the recommendations contained in the book here, and order a copy here.

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