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Webless in Paradise?

20 May 2015

Richard Blyth _RTPI Staff -0648The London Evening Standard reported this week that residents of a development in South London where 2 bed flats start at half a million were “struggling to cope in the 21st century” because, due to a “lack of infrastructure”, many of them are without internet or phone lines. [1] This sounds like the ultimate first world problem. Perhaps anyone able to afford a flat costing half a million should be thankful they can! However it is one aspect of a serious issue which goes far beyond whether inner-London flatdwellers can update their social media profiles.

ESPeople in cities (and elsewhere) reasonably presume that infrastructure will be provided in line with housing and population growth. Indeed when I as an urban planner say what my job is, people suppose that is what we do – sort this stuff out. “That must be interesting” they say, and not only out of politeness. However honesty often compels me to confess that planners don’t do this at all, because they do not have powers to do so. Urban planners can influence the numbers of homes which are permitted, but infrastructure planning is not in their gift.

One solution might be to have more control of infrastructure investment in the hand of the cities who need the investment. The devolution agenda in England is one possible way forward.

Why is it that what normal people would suppose is the core business of a profession not in fact what happens?  How would we feel if doctors said they were not in the business of actually treating people but had some other role in society altogether? To answer this question requires a little history.

I blogged previously about how the fragmentation of the industries which provide vital infrastructure to cities into many different bodies, who all have highly differing objectives, makes the urban planning role in England really difficult.  The only thing you can be sure of amongst these  various infrastructure bodies, be they schools, utilities, transport, is that their purposes tend not encompass supporting housing growth. This is probably the most serious reason for a housing crisis in England. Forget “the Green Belt” or “the developers” or “the oligarchs”.  Look no further than this devastating fragmentation of purpose. That blog focussed on the issue of foreign ownership. But the public sector is not necessarily any better at coordinating to support housing growth. This problem goes back a long way.

A Solution?

One solution might be to have more control of infrastructure investment in the hand of the cities who need the investment. The devolution agenda in England is one possible way forward. However it only affects the public sector. An interesting and useful development is in Hamburg, where the city has taken back control of utilities from private companies. However you need strong and confident city government, freed from the controls of a centralised state, if you are to be able to do this. Let’s hope that’s what George Osborne’s proposals permit.

 [1] “Disgrace of £500,000 flats with no internet access or phone lines” ES 15.05.15