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Tuesday November 06 2007

Here’s a first.  I agree with Marcus Brigstocke about something.

Cicero reports:

To me, this brought home just how draconian the planning regulations are in Britain. As Marcus Brigstocke pointed out in his Radio Programme As Safe as Houses, the fact is that the UK has an extremely small area devoted to housing - less than 7%. As you fly over the country, even the supposedly crowded South East England, the overwhelming prospect is not of a concrete jungle, but of how green the country is.

Presumably that last sentence is Cicero speaking.  Whoever it is, I agree.  That’s exactly how the south east of England (never mind the UK as a whole) looks to me.

I once had a driving job, delivering number plates, which took me into all kinds of out-of-the-way places in the UK, away from the big roads and the big towns and cities.  Same thing again.  Greenery everywhere.  Okay that was thirty years ago, but things haven’t changed that much since then.  Which is exactly the problem.

The particular thing that depressed me is the lack of entirely new towns.  Since WW2 building a “new town” has involved a huge political convulsion, rather than just some rich guy with opinions or plans just going ahead and doing it.

Maybe a lot of the problem is architectural.  Unlike (I suspect) in France, it is universally assumed that new rural or suburban housing in the UK will be tacky and tedious and anonymous.  New urban buildings now have a bit of style about them.  Some people at least, me included, often like them.  Why can’t “housing” be like that?  It is better than it was in the sixties?  How could it not be?  But maybe it hasn’t improved enough.

I’m sure I’ve said if before, but I’ll say it again anyway.  My eldest brother used to work in Hong Kong.  You should hear him talk about this bizarre notion that the UK is crowded.  Spit more like.

Look at a satellite photograph of Google Earth. In fact, this is perfect</a>. You can click on “Map” to see a map rather than photograph, and when you do this the place names I give in the next paragraph are helpful.

Note there are two big islands to the south. The one on the bottom right (or perhaps bottom middle describes it better) is Hong Kong Island. The northern strip of this is populated (Central, Causeway Bay, Quarry Bay). The rest of it is green. Just to the north of Hong Kong island on the mainland, you find Kowloon. This is also densely populated. To the north of this you go over a greeny strip to a populated area on both sides of a finger of water. This is the Sha Tin district, which is populated with lots of people living in apartment towers. Go over a bigger green area to the left and you get to the populated area around Yuen Long. This is full of apartment towers and is where the bulk of Hong Kong’s population actually lives.

To the south of that is the other large island, which is Lantau. This has the new Hong Kong airport on its north side. Since the opening of the airport and its connection to the rest of Hong Kong by the Tsing Ma Bridge, the north eastern strip of Lantau is being rapidly developed, but there is still only perhaps a hundred thousand people living on the island. Most of the rest of it is undeveloped, with a few small fishing villages.

That is the populated areas of Hong Kong. The vast bulk of Hong Kong is green on the map and green in reality, unpopulated. Some of this is due to hostile geography - hills and mountains. Much of it, though, is due to (largely futile) historical policies of deliberately not developing much of the land so that Hong Kong could retain some of its water resources and not be too dependent on China proper. Also, the amount of land that has been made available for private development has been small so as to keep prices high for a few favoured developers. (In return, these developers have paid property tax that has made up most of Hong Kong’s tax income).

The aggregate of all this means that the bulk of the land in Hong Kong is not developed, and there are plenty of places to go for a long walk in the countryside (on days when the pollution and humidity is not too bad, at least) or go and have lunch in a quaint little village.

Now, to the north of Yuen Long, you see another area on the top of the map which is clearly much more heavily developed than anywhere on the bottom half of the map. This is of course the Chinese city of Shenzhen. There was nothing there in 1975, but the city has grown since then to the point where it now has a good deal more people than Hong Kong, probably 10 to 12 million. You can see a precise line where the green stops, and the developed area starts (and where the “map” stops if you select map rather than photograph, and this is of course the border between the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. The Chinese city comes right up to the border and then stops, and laws and regulation have prevented it from encroaching further. The laws and regulations are why the bulk of Hong Kong to the south is green on the map.

What is the point I am making? Well, essentially I am saying that I don’t consider Hong Kong to be crowded either. You could double the population of Hong Kong without the quality of life changing in any significant way. (It would require more infrastructure and more housing to be built, but Hong Kong is very good at building both).

In fact, Hong Kong people sound exactly like English people when they say “Hong Kong is full up and can’t take any more people”. It isn’t true in England, and I don’t think it is true in Hong Kong either. Of course, Hong Kong is not capable of producing its own food, or generating its own electricity or anything like that, but that is no less or more true than it would be with twice the population. (People in Australia also sound exactly the same when they explain that Australia is full up and cannot take any more people, and that case is much more laughable. But they none the less say it).

Posted by Michael Jennings on 06 November 2007

I messed the link up. Here is the satellite photograph. Here is the map.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 06 November 2007

The Association of British Drivers made a similar point a few years ago:

However, I’m not sure that’s the real reason that people support planning.  What they fear is that urban areas will expand to the point where there is no countryside left.  In other words there is no check to the process.  I think they’re wrong but it’s up to us to explain to them why they are wrong.  Here’s my go:

Posted by Patrick on 07 November 2007

Wow, I had never noticed this before, you are absolutely right of course. Lightbulb moment for me. The UK certainly feels overcrowded, when you’re in the middle of the squashed up bits surrounded by open countryside. I think we’ve been acclimatised to close, tiny architecture over hundreds of years and are only just waking up to its drawbacks.

After moving to Somerset from London, I was always amazed at the incredibly thin roads going through vast open countryside. Cars still get stuck trying to pass each other, and little old houses are right on the street, rattling when a bus goes past. Yet behind, fields and more fields.

I think a lot of people are just reluctant about change, still, and protest that they actually prefer to live like hobbits, while using conservation laws etc to stop anyone else from doing better.

Posted by Alice Bachini-Smith on 07 November 2007

Perhaps, ala Alice, there’s a difference between “crowded” (no room for more people) and “crowded” (feels crowded because there’s farkin’ people everywhere).

England plainly isn’t the former, but where people do in fact live, it seem to be a bit of the latter.

(Part of why, for instance, I have no intention of ever living in New York or Hong Kong or the like. Population density makes me figuratively itchy.)

Posted by Sigivald on 08 November 2007

I think the mention of ‘new housing’ or ‘new suburbs’ conjures images of Milton Keynes for many, with its artificially lit, ghastly ‘shopping centre’, identikit houses (although one could say that about any UK town, barring some Arts and Crafts period suburbs of Greater London) and New York style address specification on the grid (minus the glamour of Manhattan).

As for whether the problem is architectural, need we look further than the 4th plinth on Trafalgar Square? Same question, same palaver each time.

BTW I agree with Sigivald with the business of people being crowded in certain pockets giving the impression of the country being full-up. Nowhere is this more evident than in London, although Cambridge and Oxford are not far behind.

Urban areas however give that impression in general. Edinburgh New Town where fewer than 7000 people are on the electoral rolls, feels awfully crowded in the day time, which is not borne out by data.

Posted by Shefaly on 08 November 2007

Patrick’s contribution above made me add something to his Planning link that I’ve been meaning to do for a while. In essence I think that if you want to make a case against planning it has to be rigorous. The planning system is so ingrained into British thinking that it is in practice almost genuinely unthinkable to suggest it isn’t needed.

Posted by ian on 08 November 2007
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