Real debate needed on causes of unrest

Tony Fyson advises the government to look for the root causes of the riots and not be tempted to blame planners

Tony Fyson: "Most people do not act criminally because they are too poor for consumer society". Heygate estate photo by J@ck!
Tony Fyson: "Most people do not act criminally because they are too poor for consumer society". Heygate estate photo by J@ck!

It is a relief that media commentators, with their confident explanations for the riots in English cities this month, have not made significant efforts to blame the planners.

Neither, so far, has anyone revived the urban design "solutions" thrown up by previous episodes of unrest, particularly making the crooked places straight and the narrow ways wider to speed police access to trouble spots. The haphazard character of many cities is part of their attraction and should not be sacrificed on the altar of law and order.

If social and economic deprivation is the root cause of the problem, then it is easy to read across to the substandard physical surroundings that many poor people endure. Urban planners already work hard to improve both the public context and the private living circumstances of the urban poor, so far as available resources allow. But poverty in a bad environment does not lead more than a very small proportion of the population to mug, loot and burn. Society as a whole is not "broken", neither do most people act criminally just because they are too poor to fully participate in the consumer society. The acquisition of "stuff" is a relative satisfaction, without an absolute measure of deprivation or abundance, and of course the rich can - and often do - act as illegally as the poor.

The most convincing assessments of the riots accept that meagre wealth and the promotion of greed contribute to disaffection in a minority of young people, but do not explain it entirely. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair broke his habitual political silence last Sunday in The Observer to focus on the role of the family, advocating a programme of intervention "family by family at an early stage, even before any criminality has occurred". It is difficult to see how housing issues could be kept off his inevitably long intervention agenda, especially child-friendly residential environments, which are essentially a planning matter.

High housing densities in the cities do not cause all the ills of family breakdown that seem to be a common experience of many young miscreants, but they surely contribute. It is noticeable that most pundits who eulogise the hugger-mugger nature of inner city life either have the resources to avoid its negative aspects or choose elsewhere to raise and educate their families. It is also clear that towns and smaller cities were largely unaffected by the disturbances, despite some reported attempts to stimulate copycat action. They merit preferment as new housing locations.

We certainly need a higher level of policy discussion than the advice rushed out by the Department of Communities and Local Government suggesting the acceleration of approvals for rebuilding activity, the use of local development orders to grant automatic planning permissions for shutters and shop alterations and even a proposal to free security measures in shopping areas from the need for permission altogether. It is hard to imagine a more effective way of creating an alien and unwelcoming transformation of the high street.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues and TCPA trustee.

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